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Nymphomaniac: Vol. I - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I
Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-

My god, how much actual penetrative sex do we need to see in motion pictures these days? After Blue is the Warmest Color and Stranger by the Lake, does Nymphomaniac make it a fad? On the other hand, there's something to be said for movies that challenge the viewer. These three movies do exactly that; and it occurs to me that there's something egalitarian about them all being released within months of each other. One is about lesbians; another about gay men; this one is about an apparently straight woman. Between all these movies, they seem to have just about all the bases of sexuality covered.

There's something both deeper and more sinister about Nymphomaniac, however, something that taps into the basest levels of humanity, but presented in a pointedly nonjudgmental way. There's something seductive about this movie, but not in the way you might expect. There's enough sex to desensitize you to it, even as you watch an actual blow job on a train, or cunnilingus on a bright white bed spread. Lars von Trier, the visionary provocateur behind Melancholia and Dancer in the Dark, has somehow made a movie that is explicitly about sex and yet also transcends it.

Film has come a long way since Shortbus, although that is still easily the most notable American film of the past decade to feature real sex. There was a meta aspect to the use of sex in that movie, though; it was partly making its own points about the challenges of doing such a thing. In these recent movies, the sex is no less explicit, but it's incidental. I still can't decide what need there is for it, exactly, and it still seems relevant that all these recent films are foreign -- but they are still finding audiences in the U.S. that they never would have gained in the past, with no controversy. Nobody seems to care.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some of us are just products of a repressed puritanical society. Nymphomaniac certainly isn’t going to be for everyone. Broad-minded individuals with a taste for singular cinematic visions, however, should definitely give it a look.

Much of it is mystifying, I'll freely admit. But this is "Vol. I," after all; we'll just have to trust that "Vol. 2," coming next month, will fill in some of the holes. Of course, some holes don't need filling. Our enti-heroine, Joe, played as a teenager by Stacy Martin and as an adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg (they are largely indistinguishable), apparently has no hole she won't readily fill. We are given little background for this character aside from a detached relationship with her mother (Connie Nielsen); a love for her trees-obsessed father Christian Slater); and the discovery of her own vagina at age four. By the time she and her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) are teenagers, they are competing for the largest number of sexual conquests on a train. The winner gets a bag of chocolates.

Joe never seems particularly to enjoy these sexual exploits in the beginning. She'll be pinned against a train bathroom wall, a look on her face suggesting she might as well be filing her fingernails. She is later described as an "addict" -- a dubious description at best -- and perhaps that makes sense here: sex is very much like an itch to be scratched, rather than an intimacy to be enjoyed. This detachment is displayed as early as the loss of her first time, when she casually asks a boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) to take her virginity. By the time Joe grows up, she's regularly having sex with up to ten different men each evening.

All of this is told in flashback. Lars von Trier can display a blithe disregard for viewer patience, and this applies to the very opening scene: first, before it even fades in from black, an extended period of sounds, mostly falling rain. Then long, slow tracking shots of tin rooftops and gutter pipes dripping with rain. Finally we find Joe, bruised and battered, lying on the brick ground in the middle of some kind of courtyard in an old residential complex. She is found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who says he will call an ambulance, but Joe convinces him to bring her inside for a cup of tea instead. It's there, in his apartment and lying in his bed and wearing his pajamas, that she tells him her story. Why her condition is her own fault; she is a deeply terrible human being, which Seligman refuses to believe. He refuses for the duration of her story telling, at least thus far, even as she reveals things about herself most people would be quite quick to judge.

A lot of screen time is devoted to these two talking in his bedroom, and the straightforward, calm nature of their verbal exchanges is soothing, in a way. There's something about the sound editing, the crisp nature of the audio as their lines are spoken, as well as the words they're saying, that effortlessly commands attention. It amplifies the mystery of the characters, to a degree; although the same sort of sound mixing is used for dialogue in the flashbacks as well. Much of the movie smacks of raw sexuality, but the scenes in Seligman's bedroom are comparatively cozy, almost wholesome.

That said, it doesn't take long to wonder when Seligman might transform from confidante to just another one of Joe's sexual conquests. It's hard to imagine he won't be, but that question never gets answered in this installment of the two-part movie. Nothing in particular gets resolved here; it's a succession of uniquely compelling, sometimes funny and often sad, vignettes. A sequence in the hospital reveals a particularly undignified experience for Joe's father. In one extended sequence, one particular sex partner takes Joe's lie at face value and attempts to move in, only for them to get barged in on by his wife and three children. This woman is a mesmerizingly sociopathic, and I didn't even realize until the credits rolled that she was played by Uma Thurman.

You wouldn't expect a movie like this to leave you wanting more. But Lars von Trier has a singular way of captivating audiences, using cinematic techniques in surprising ways, like superimposing a geometrical diagram over a birds-eye view of Joe parallel parking. The film is sprinkled with this oddly charming graphics on the screen, at some of the least expected times: counting the thrusts of Jerome into her vagina versus her anus, for instance. It illustrates Joe's exploits as a mathematically calculated enterprise. The graphics are used a bit during the one time Joe falls in love as well, although you might call what happens to her an obsession more than love -- and something that she hates enduring and never wants again.

B, Joe's best friend, is her initial influence in widespread sexual exploits -- and yet it's her who ultimately says, "The secret ingredient to sex is love." The line is repeated twice. Joe rejects it outright. In Vol. 1, we only get the vaguest hint as to why she is this way, and the equally graphic preview clips to Vol. II featured during the credits suggest she only falls deeper into the rabbit hole of desperate needs for more and more severe needs for sexual gratification.

How great this movie really is will depend a great deal on how Vol. II plays out. But taken on its own, even without the resolution of conventional movies that have a prescribed end, Nymphomaniac: Vol I stands alone and stands apart, a singular vision and thoroughly absorbing. Even when Seligman constantly compares Joe's stories of sexual predation to his hobby of fly fishing -- a constant refrain. Only Lars von Trier can make sex so tedious and interesting in equal measure.

Stacy Martin is a budding NYMPHOMANIAC in Vol. 1.

Overall: A-
2 comments or Leave a comment
fatpie42 From: fatpie42 Date: March 28th, 2014 09:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Blue Is The Warmest Colour" contains penetrative sex? I mean, I know that is possible for a lesbian couple with the right tools, but I must admit, I wasn't expecting that.

I've found it difficult to believe that I'd enjoy a Lars Von Trier movie. The big Von Trier movie at the point where I might have been interested in experimenting was "Anti-Christ" and the whole thing about 'the bit with the scissors' made me entirely disinclined to give it a go. I've been meaning to check out "Melancholia" because I think the sci-fi angle might give me a way in. I'm hearing a fair number of people praising Nymphomaniac and I just cannot imagine making this my first Von Trier film, no matter how great it might be.
cinema_holic From: cinema_holic Date: March 28th, 2014 09:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think they use fingers in Blue is the Warmest Color, but now that you mention it, I don't remember for sure. In any case, the sex in that one is no less graphic than in the others, and arguably more so, considering how long the shots are sustained.

If you've never seen any Lars von Trier film, Melancholia is the perfect one to see first. I loved it.

Before Melancholia, I would have said Dancer in the Dark was his best film. But I could not in good conscience recommend that one to anyone. It's devastating, and I mean that seriously. I was exhausted from crying by the end.
2 comments or Leave a comment