Nymphomaniac: Volume I Review

(2.5 STARS)

Volume I of famous Danish provocateur Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga is…well…incomplete. This portrait of a woman’s journey into sex addiction builds and builds and builds, and if Volume II delivers on the promise introduced here, these two drifting hours of character development will feel essential. On their own, they just don’t. In stretches—namely Chapter 3: “Mrs. H.”—Nymphomaniac: Volume I is mind-blowing. But sporadic bursts of energy aside, this is a von Trier sex film without a real (plot) climax.

The film’s opening scene introduces us to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd). The latter finds the former bruised and lying on the wet ground outside his home. He brings her in and offers her a cup of tea, while she obliges his curiosity and begins telling him the story of how she got there. It’s a long story.

We then flash back and meet a younger Joe (Stacy Martin). She’s curious about sex from a very young age when she approaches a local grease monkey—Jerome (Shia LaBeouf)—with a request to take her virginity. From there, she continues exploring her sexuality—taking on multiple partners, associating with similarly curious friends. Her one rule: never sleep with the same man more than once. That rule is put to the test when, after taking her first job as an assistant, she’s reunited with a clean-cut, very successful Jerome.

The film’s framing device is extraordinarily off-putting. The obvious problem with this structure is that it puts severe limits on two outstanding actors. Gainsbourg and SkarsgÃ¥rd have so little to do; it’s an undeniable disappointment. Even worse, however, is the screenplay’s tendency to make obnoxiously pretentious metaphors about Joe’s sexual escapades. Fly fishing and cake forks are discussed in more detail than they ever ought to be. And when Seligman starts noting that the number of “humps” during Joe’s first time with Jerome resembles the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, I thought I’d be transported back to a bad episode of LOST.

Removed of this storytelling mechanism, however, there’s some really compelling stuff in Volume I. Broken into chapters—each with its own distinctive visual style—the film is never better than during Chapter 3, where we meet the wife of one of Joe’s more or less anonymous partners. Uma Thurman plays this woman, called Mrs. H, with a psychotic kind of zeal that makes her ten minutes on screen truly unforgettable. She brings her children to meet their father’s mistress, and as she utters lines like, “Would it be alright if I showed the children the whoring bed?”, you’ll laugh out loud in horror and sympathize with her all the same. She’s been destroyed and she wants to make young Joe feel it. Though Nymphomaniac: Volume I is the first narrative feature I’ve seen in 2014, it would stun me if I saw a supporting performance this year as powerful and exciting as Thurman’s.

The other four chapters vary in levels of success. Usually the funnier the chapter, the more satisfying it is. Young Joe spends an inordinate amount of time at the side of her father’s hospital bed. It’s morbid—and dull. Meanwhile, her multiple trysts on a train—a contest (for chocolate sweeties!) she concocts with her best friend—is deliciously twisted.

Performance-wise, Thurman is the only real actor of note. Gainsbourg and SkarsgÃ¥rd are hamstrung by the framing device. Stacy Martin is (appropriately) a blank slate. Shia LaBeouf isn’t as bad as you might expect considering he’s bizarrely playing a Brit. He’s not good, mind you, but he’s not train-wreck awful, either.

What we’re seeing here, of course, is not von Trier’s preferred cut. His entire vision of Nymphomaniac runs something like five and a half hours and is apparently much more explicit than what Magnet is releasing. (That’s saying something, considering the number of penises in this movie.) It would be cool to one day see what the great director had in mind, though I’m not convinced length is one of Nymphomaniac‘s shortcomings (pun absolutely intended). Still, one has to reserve judgment on pieces of a whole, and while I won’t lie and say Volume I of the studio version is an unequivocal masterpiece, it contains enough great bits and bobs to keep me eager for Volume II.

Share This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *