Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1

The titular heroine shares her exploits with an understanding stranger
in Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1
YOU'RE K, I'M NOT OKAY: As nymphomaniac Joe seeks more and more daring escapades, she hires the services of an S&M dominator known as K (Jamie Bell, above). 'Billy Elliot,' is that you?

As per the hillbilly watching a preacher addressing the topic "Sin!" ("Is he fer it or agin' it?") Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 suggests Lars von Trier is fer it. That's easier to get than it is to figure whether it's compulsion or rejection that makes a certain woman have loads of meaningless sex.

Von Trier tantalizes us with a dark beginning: soft rain, the distant squeak of bed springs and an alley walled in by hundreds and hundreds of slimy brown bricks. The camera revealing a semi-conscious, beaten, fully clothed woman Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A middle aged bachelor called Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) hauls Joe upstairs to his grimly wallpapered flat, and gives her tea, pajamas and a sympathetic ear.

Seligman is the therapist you'd want if you really wanted to get away with stuff. He finds justifications in all of Joe's actions, and says things like, "Well, that's certainly understandable" or "If you have wings, why not fly?" (Von Trier cuts to a flying bird to show us what one looks like.) As he warms to his task, Seligman finds musical and mathematical motifs to Joe's choice of multiple partners—a sane, logical pattern which might have escaped a maniac's eye.

In deliberately stilted, neo-documentary scenes, we see Joe in her sleepless-eyed adolescent years as played by Stacy Martin losing her virginity to a moped-riding thug (Shia Leboeuf, about which more later). Later, Joe is a hollow-eyed, leather-clad cherry bomb prowling the British Railways to the sounds of Steppenwolf, seeking whom she might devour. For a time, she's also the ring leader of a gang of teenage seductresses ("We called ourselves The Little Flock"). Unfortunately, The Little Flock never become serious anti-romance terrorists, though they have a tough motto: "Hundreds of crimes are committed in the name of love. Only one is committed in the name of lust."

Watching this gabfest punctuated with straightforward sex scenes, we can mull over the possibilities: Is Joe dead? Is Seligman actually God, hearing her and forgiving her? Or is Nymphomaniac the reiteration of an ancient Scandinavian duty? When explicitly sexual film emerged in the 1960s, it came wrapped in Swedish and Danish assurances that all this copulation was all revolutionary informative fun. Has the director of Melancholia and Antichrist suddenly turned to making therapeutic art—when if there's any place "chaos reigns!" it reigns in the field of sex?

Nymphomaniac is smartest in one chapter about fucking the pain away—Christian Slater is very good as Joe's wise, beloved father, making a dignified quote of the Stoic Epicurus and dying with shit on his sheets anyway. This might be von Trier's idea of a joke. His humor seems to elude the mass; the critics I saw this with scarcely snickered at Uma Thurman as a melodramatic mom who hauls three children to Joe's lair to humiliate her cheating husband. She calls Joe "the pretty miss!" and makes her family gaze at the lascivious love bed: "Let's go see Father's favorite place!" Unhinged, Uma starts quoting the renunciation scene from Queen Christina (1933).

But the man Joe can neither keep nor discard is her first, Jerome (Laboeuf). The evil Shia has a creaky British accent ("I think you should take your knickers off, ja?") which sounded like Canberra Australian; despicably, he injects a little 50 Shades of Grey into the works by being her boss for a time. "That's a do-over," he says when she brings in the breakfast on the wrong tray. This is all legitimately disgusting. No nookie for plagiarists! For all his precision, von Trier can make messes that could use a do-over; he has one clear mission in this murkiness, and that's trying his best to find the lost link between porn and "legitimate" film, since he creates both kinds. Still, von Trier may be planning to blow all this humanism up in Volume 2: count this as a mere baffling preamble to the actual perversity to come.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1

118 MIN


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