Nymphomaniac is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsborough). At the start of the film, a light snow falls as we find her bloodied and beaten body in an alley. When the curious Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) ventures down this massive, vaginal hall, the blaring death metal on the soundtrack suggests he’s about to take a trip into the bowels of Hell. Director Lars Von Trier is having a laugh. To not realize that upfront is to not be on-board with what Nymphomaniac Volume One has to offer.
The polite Seligman takes this woman in when she refuses help or medical assistance, and soon she is telling him the story of her life, which in her eyes is a story of betrayal and degradation. But she begins in her early days, highlighting her earliest experiments with sex. Born to contrasting middle-class parents (the unlikely duo of Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen), Joe speaks of her attachment to her father. Slater is a bit too youthful for this part, which calls for him to age from around forty-ish to at least mid-fifties: in fact, Slater could still pass for 25. It gives his scenes with a young Joe (Stacy Martin) an inappropriate, and unconsummated, erotic charge. Joe does not portray her father in a sexual light at all, though by referring to her mother as a “cold bitch,” it gives some insight. Joe’s mother made the world cold; it’s only natural that Joe felt the need to warm it up again.
Interestingly, Von Trier downplays the sexual traffic Joe encounters as she ages from teenage years. She speaks of taking multiple lovers a day, but we only glimpse a handful, and the already-controversial explicitness of the encounters isn’t much different than the European art-pictures of the seventies from the likes of Tinto Brass. Von Trier’s provocations are small, like the dribble of bodily fuild that emerges from young Joe’s mouth, or the early days of her youthful masturbation. More loaded are the small candies that Joe wins when competing with her friend to see who can seduce the most passengers on a train ride. In an abstract way, that seems more loaded than Shia LaBeouf tugging on his member before simulated sex.
LaBeouf, by the way, plays Jerome, Joe’s first lover, and one that consistently resurfaces in her life. He initially has a curt, working-class edge to him, but later he finds civility behind a desk. There’s a great difference between these characterizations, however, and even Seligman has to interrupt Joe’s story to add a polite protestation. Jerome is seen during three time periods during Joe’s life, and it’s certainly possible that in the re-tellng, she’s assigning that face to a series of lovers. LaBeouf, to his credit, is good in a part that lets him relax, let the movie come to him. In all iterations, Jerome is a dimwit of sorts, and LaBeouf gives this idiocy an appealing simplicity. It’s not hard to see why the ravenous Joe fell for him.
This, however, is still a powerful filmmaker at the height of his skills. Von Trier is something of a prankster, but behind the darkly comic gags, his ideas are true. The Dogme 95 movement he helped pioneer was just a joke, but it was also a way to find a new truth to filmmaking, one that ultimately changed the industry. Von Trier has made less commercial films before, but what’s startling about Nymphomaniac is about how conventionally non-entertaining it is. A long passage where Joe joins her ailing father is bleak and upsetting, dragging along in an attempt to plumb the deepest depths of Joe’s feeling. And because Von Trier has split this massive epic into two volumes, he’s allowed for all sorts of digressions on Joe’s part, particularly when she surgically breaks down the different penises she’s experienced. The world doesn’t have a sense of humor, Von Trier argues, but I do.
It’s ultimately upsetting that Von Trier split this epic into two, because Volume One closes anticlimactically, demanding a follow-up. Particularly considering late in the first entry when Uma Thurman arrives like a force of nature, running rampant through Joe’s home when her husband makes the choice to shack up with Joe. It’s a violent pushback against the free sexuality of the picture, a foreboding harbinger of Volume Two doom. Nymphomaniac is a borderline surgical look at sexual deviance, but you have to shell out for Volume Two to find out if it is any more than that.