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Nymphomaniac Vol. I

D: Lars von Trier / 118m

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Hugo Speer, Connie Nielsen, Ananya Berg, Jesper Christensen, Nicolas Bro

In a secluded alleyway, a man called Seligman (Skarsgård) finds a woman (Gainsbourg) lying unconscious on the ground; she’s been attacked.  He takes her back to his home, where she tells him the story of her life, and how she came to be in the alleyway where he found her.  The woman’s name is Joe, and she tells Seligman that from a very young age she was aware of her vagina and the pleasure it could give her.  She relates a number of instances from her childhood, and mentions her father, a doctor (Slater) whom she loved very much.  As a teenager (Martin) she chooses a boy, Jerôme (LaBeouf), to take her virginity, and so, begins a relationship with him that will continue off and on for the rest of her life.

Joe relates her time having sex with strangers on trains as a game she played with her friend B (Clark), and the club they subsequently form where members are not allowed to have sex more than once with the same person.  However, B falls in love and Joe ends their friendship in disgust.  Some time later, Joe applies for a job at a printing house, and despite having no skills or experience, is taken on.  This proves to be because her boss is the same Jerôme who took her virginity.  Jerôme wants to have sex with her but she refuses his advances, while at the same time she has sex with all the other men in the office.  But her willingness to see Jerôme suffer has a different effect and Joe stops having sex altogether; like B she too has fallen in love.  She builds up the courage to tell him but takes too long: when she arrives at work one day prepared to tell Jerôme how she feels about him, she finds he’s now married and travelling abroad.

Joe’s reaction is to have sex with as many men as possible, and to keep a string of lovers.  She tells of one man, H (Speer), who she tried to break up with by telling him he’ll never leave his wife and family, but this is exactly what he does, and it leads to an uncomfortable visit by his wife (Thurman) and their children.  But Joe admits the whole thing left her unmoved.  It’s only when her father dies in hospital that Joe is moved at all.  Continuing to juggle both work and several lovers, Joe finds herself feeling sad at times and while walking in a park one day, she is reunited with Jerôme.  He tells her his marriage isn’t working, and they go back to Joe’s place and have sex, but partway through she realises that she can’t feel anything physically.

Nymphomaniac Vol. I - scene

With all the hype surrounding von Trier’s Nymph()maniac duology (particularly the explicit sex scenes – always guaranteed to draw people’s attention), the casual viewer might be put off by a movie that revels in its bad taste highlights and caustic humour, but with Vol. I that would be a mistake.  After the dreary, depressing Antichrist (2009) and the mock-opera bombast of Melancholia (2011), the wily old fox of arthouse cinema has decided to make a comedy about sex, and not just about sex itself, but a vast array of preconceptions about sex, and its relationship with pain, betrayal, neglect, lust, sacrifice, and perhaps worst of all, love.

As a young child, Joe is presented as thoughtful, intelligent, acquisitive and precocious.  Her relationship with her father appears to hold the key to her future behaviour – Joe seeks what her father can’t give her – and on a basic psychological level it’s obvious why Joe behaves in the way she does.  But Joe isn’t interested in the emotional mechanics of sex but in the overriding physical need that pushes her to seek out so many men and so many sexual experiences.  Joe wants to be true to herself – to her vagina – but what she learns, and resolutely pushes to one side, is that emotion can enhance her encounters.  And yet, as her relationship with Jerôme shows, feelings and emotions can augment her experiences and enrich them.  It’s her refusal to admit this, or even trust it, that makes Joe such a sad figure: she’ll never find true happiness unless she allows herself to love.

In telling her story, Joe and Seligman indulge in some philosophical game-playing as Joe keeps referring to herself as sinful, while Seligman refutes her assertions at every turn. These interludes often find von Trier at his most mischievous as Joe seeks to justify her behaviour where clearly she has no need to.  Alluding to various topics, such as fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers, Seligman acts as the audience’s representative, taking Joe’s revelations in his stride and remaining unaffected throughout.  Some of the connections von Trier comes up with hail from the wrong side of contrivance, but despite this they have a certain élan to them that keeps them amusing even if they do sound pretentious.

Again, it’s the humour that counts, whether it’s Joe and B trying to be sophisticated while seducing men on the train, or Joe and Seligman arguing over the attributes of a cake fork, or even LaBeouf’s horrendous English accent (even worse than Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney horror in Mary Poppins).  Joe’s bed-hopping behaviour has its own in-built jocosity, appearing in stark contrast to the laboured protestations of guilt that the older Joe regales Seligman with.  It’s fun to see her treat men in the same way that men often treat women – as objects there to provide pleasure and little else – and even the tirade offered up by Mrs H. is entertaining with its desperate, cloying sarcasm projected as barely disguised venom.  There’s also a nice line in visual humour – Jerôme stopping an elevator in order to seduce Joe and finding out when he’s rebuffed that it’s stopped between floors; Seligman envisioning Joe’s somewhat different approach to “education”; the penis montage – although the equivalent verbal humour isn’t quite as prominent.

On the dramatic side, Joe’s encounter with Mrs H is the movie’s highlight, while Joe’s (one-sided) romance with Jerôme appears more of a plot device to keep Joe shagging lots of men than a real development for either character.  That she meets up with him again at the end isn’t much of a surprise – there’s unfinished business to be dealt with, after all – but the movie’s cliffhanger ending successfully pulls the rug out from under the audience’s feet with aplomb.  Her relationship with her father is honest and straightforward, and the scenes where he’s in hospital are genuinely moving (thanks largely to the playing of Messrs Slater and Martin).

As the younger Joe, Martin gives a stand-out performance, Joe’s initial enjoyment of sex before it becomes more and more of an addiction is so well depicted that it comes as a bit of a shock that this is her first movie.  But even when things begin to get darker, Martin keeps her focus and keeps the audience watching: it’s a bravura turn and easily award-worthy.  As the older Joe, Gainsbourg is mesmerising, her care-worn face telling of hardships that not even she can adequately talk about.  She dominates her scenes with Skarsgård, his nervous, twitchy style of acting at odds with her confident, self-assured determinism.  Skarsgård makes the most of Seligman’s “learned” naiveté, while there’s sterling support from Slater, Thurman and Clark.  Sadly, the same can’t be said for LaBeouf, who provides the worst performance in the movie, his attempts at creating a realistic character continually being undermined by his limitations as an actor.

Von Trier’s direction, as you might expect, is controlled and tightly focused, and he uses a variety of shots – often in the same scene – to show the fractured nature of Joe’s unique view of the world.  He’s on less solid ground with his script, with Joe’s often brittle approach to other people and her own feelings going some way to making her a little less sympathetic than expected.  Having said that, there are plenty of clever touches, and von Trier has a sure knack of cutting away from a scene at the right moment.  His cinematographer, Manuel Alberto Claro, gives the movie an appropriately clinical look that reflects the sense of detachment that Joe feels with regard to her life and history.

Rating: 7/10 – brimming with ideas (not all of which are effectively rendered), Nymph()maniac Vol. I is a cinematic confection dressed up in serious attire; an intriguing movie for the most part, but hampered by its unnecessary lack of an ending.