Acclaimed director and professional misanthrope Lars von Trier is at it again with Nymphomaniac, the first volume of which has been released On Demand today. The loveable/loathsome scamp behind such existential horror shows as Dancer in the Dark and Melancholia has built a career on pushing audience buttons, so the real question surrounding Nymphomaniac isn’t whether this 5-hour sexcapade should exist, but rather, why has it taken von Trier this long to make it? As expected, sex as the ultimate cinematic taboo provides the iconoclastic director all the ammunition he needs to make the 2-hour American cut of Nymphomaniac: Volume I a real treat for fans of transgressive cinema.
While it might sound like I’m trying to meme-ify one of the world’s most provocative filmmakers, it’s hard not to feel like thay excitement for Nymphomaniac owes as much to its explicit content and epic length as it does to von Trier’s notorious reputation. There’s an in-joke quality amongst those familiar with his bleak vision of the world, which has seemingly developed into a masochistic game of one-upsmanship between von Trier and his audience. When your last film crescendos with the complete obliteration of all human life, what sort of wringer could you save for your audience as a follow-up? Game for the challenge, von Trier goes smaller but no less operatic with Nymphomaniac, an orgiastic saga that’s one quarter hormonal romp, one quarter searing sexual psychodrama, and one full half T.B.D.
The biggest caveat that will temper enjoyment (if you can call it that) of Nymphomaniac: Volume I is that it’s very much one half of a greater whole. While von Trier tries to accommodate the split using an episodic story structure, it’s to the film’s credit and detriment that once Volume I ends, you’ll be itching to watch Volume II (releasing digitally next month) right away. Accordingly, Volume I deals with the setup. The film opens with unassuming bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) happening upon the bruised and near-unconscious Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), taking her into his care on the condition she explain the deep self-hatred she carries with her.
As Joe tells via flashback, her prurient lifestyle implied by the title offers plenty of reason to not feel particularly pleased with her choices. Broken down into five chapters, Volume I chronicles Joe’s life from adolescence to adulthood, wrapping each segment around a defining sexual event. As if taking on a version of the challenges he posed to filmmaker Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions, von Trier makes each segment distinct, whether shooting one in black and white, or confining the action of another almost entirely to a single scene and space. The first (and perhaps best) has Seligman using fly-fishing to contextualize a contest of sexual conquest between the younger Joe (Stacy Martin) and a friend; the parallels between landing a fish and luring a mate are so blatantly addressed that the sequence transcends metaphor, becoming a meeting point between two vastly different understandings of the world.
Though often isolated on their own, the episodes are expertly woven through the framework of Joe and Seligman’s conversation, he providing the audience a source of running commentary on Joe’s story and self-reflection. “I see it precisely as the sum of all these different sexual experiences” the older Joe says when describing her self-diagnosed condition, something von Trier plays into by having characters and images slide back and forth between segments. The greasy moppet Joe shares her first sexual encounter with (Shia LeBeouf, sporting a not particularly convincing accent) later figures into her professional and personal life in unexpected ways, and Joe’s relationship with her father (Christian Slater) provides moments of tranquility and ennui amidst the bacchanal.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I is indeed as explicit as one might expect from a film titled so, featuring such rapid-fire nudity and coitus that a slideshow of genitalia halfway through the film will likely leave you unfazed. But the film’s filthy mind doesn’t give way to exploitation, as von Trier’s filming of the act is frequently as unsexy and psychologically pointed as what you’d find in Boogie Nights or Shame, two other films occupied with the emotional drives of sex instead of just the physical ones.
Frank and frequent discussion of sex leaves little room for flowery euphemisms or Freudian interpretation, instead giving the film more opportunities for black comedy than titillation. Von Trier gets out his more impish impulses behind the camera, toying with presentation by using cleverly chosen diagrams and cutaway footage, the results of which are highly kinetic, and occasionally hilarious. But the emptiness haunting Joe, whether she’s in the bedroom or elsewhere, only becomes clearer the more engrossed we become in the odyssey that led her to Seligman, and it seems likely Volume I is just the feint jab setting us up for a devastating haymaker in Volume II.
That divide separating parts one and two marks Nymphomaniac’s most glaring issue, though certainly not its only one. The strength of some chapters draws the weaknesses of others into sharp relief (Chapter 3 devotes far too much time to Uma Thurman as an erratic wife whose home is wrecked by Joe), and the abrupt ending to Volume I is made only more jarring by a credit sequence tease of what’s to follow. While we’ll have to wait to judge the complete Nymphomaniac experience, Volume I is nonetheless a darkly pleasurable tale, providing an unblinking peephole look at enervating eroticism, and lives ruined by monsters lurking on top of the bed.
Through its first half, Nymphomaniac looks to be a darkly comic, and refreshingly blunt odyssey of smut and self-loathing.