Nymphomaniac: Volume I film review
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (2014)
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier
1 hr. 58 mins.
CRITIC’S RATING: *** stars (out of 4 stars)
Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s provocative Nymphomaniac: Volume I is indeed a shocking character study of psycho-sexual dependency at the hands of womanly disillusionment. Gloriously dark, titillating and demonstrating a fine line between an observational carnal expose and tawdry exploitation, provocateur von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I and II are sensational realms into the societal sexual cynicism that overtakes the human experience. Director-writer von Trier’s flesh-peddling fable could be reduced to that of sheer shock value showcasing feminine detachment. Still, von Trier’s naughty narrative has a strange yet lyrical overtone to its luster-minded depravity.
There is no doubt that the four-hour odyssey (hence dividing this film into two separate 2-hour volumes) concerning one mysterious woman’s ominous entanglement with sex addiction is something of an explosive and voyeuristic venture. As a movie-maker, von Trier is certainly no stranger to the finer fibers of promoting confrontational cinema with such fare as Antichrist and Meloncholia that displays the auteur’s insistence to push the cautionary buttons on his controversial subject matters. One can make the argument that Nymphomaniac I and II are meant to cater to the rousing and seedy sensibilities of one’s perverse consciousness. Whatever divisive interpretation or speculation that von Trier’s Nymphomaniac installments invite to the turbulent table one cannot deny the fascinating yet twisted journey into one lost woman’s psychologically sexual bondage into constant madness for the adrenaline-pumping flow of skin-pounding deviation.
In Nymphomaniac: Volume I, von Trier explores the introduction into his sex-starved protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) whose deep-seeded sexual proclivities are triggered on an instant whim. The capacity of Joe’s ritualistic sexual activities are compounded into one sordid confession as told to a middle-aged man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who had come to her aid after finding the battered Joe looking so vulnerable in an alleyway. Basically, Volume I sets the tone for the young Joe’s (Stacy Martin) entry into her nympho mode starting as a young girl losing her virginity to an out-of-control woman partaking in screwing anything that moves as a way with coping for the hidden pain that exists within her tainted psyche. Clearly, sex is Joe’s weapon of choice much as a loaded gun–she can wield the power to point her sexuality at any given target and demand the results she craves so recklessly. However, a gun can also discharge and be more trouble than what it is worth as well.
As for Nymphomaniac: Volume II, the Joe’s accounts are revealed to be more sinister, decadent and macabre while taking on a dangerous path to self-destruction as opposed to the anecdotal set up in Volume I where the sardonic humor and curiosity about Joe’s sexual malaise comes into complete fruition. The thought of the middle-aged Seligman playing household head shrink to a self-prescribed nymphomaniac in a chronic bed-hopping firecracker such as Joe presents all sorts of therapeutic tendencies to question. Is Seligman the ideal sounding board for Joe to air her dirty laundry and find the redemption she needs from being such “a horrible and broken” individual based upon her empty-minded sexual impulses? Also, can Seligman benefit from a sexual fantasy that were other men’s actual realities when experiencing the bodily bumping and grinding that the sexual petite tart Joe offered so freely and willingly? Seligman, at least portrayed here, seems like a reasonably cultured and caring man that seems to not want from Joe what other guys require of her–the recreational aspects of her silky curvaceous body as the root of their aimless desire.
It is obvious that both Joe and Seligman have a co-dependency that works because in many ways these two lonely souls have one thing in common–their companionship with alienation. For Joe, her alienation for despair and degradation is founded in the way she perceives herself as worthless and wasteful. Joe shares with Seligman her “demons” that range from randomly using people for her sexual pleasures–something she deems as being the essence of a very bad person–to being skeptical about the very nature of pure love and affection…something she feels is a false concept of genuine human emotion. Seligman, on the other hand, is an isolated bachelor whose stimulation only lies in the merits of his intellectualism for the creative arts. As a tandem both misguided souls have a problem in relating to people on a comfortable level.
Interestingly, Joe delves into the humble beginnings of her blossoming sexuality that started by discovering her private parts as a toddler to the preoccupation of masturbating through unconventional practices under the age of 8 years old. As a teenager Joe engaged in sexual contact with a boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and seemed to look back in her bid for meaningless sexual stimulation. Joe had a loving but head-scratching relationship with her parents (Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen) although the resentment harbored by the mother towards Joe would be quite telling in her adult life. The act of sexual intrigue would fuel Joe’s hormonal engine even further when she and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) start to embark on a daring game of promiscuity. This is performed on a train where both girls undertake the challenge of seeing how many men they can score with during the trip. Naturally both horny divas accomplish their sexual trysts without complication thus energizing their sexual drives to a whole new level of expectation.
Overall, the give-and-take in Nymphomaniac: Volume I is bold and bizarre. What von Trier accomplishes here is an off-kilter meditation of wayward digressions that are embedded into the mindset of two unlikely lonely hearts consumed with chaotic and unfulfilled existences. Gainsbourg’s raw and penetrating performance as a guilt-ridden walking sexual time bomb is riveting to the point that one feels her anxiousness and numbing meltdown even if it appears that her animated sex acts come off as a liberated form of releasing mental and physical hostility. Gainsbourg’s Joe knows she is damaged goods and we are left wondering how much this woeful woman’s self-loathing can be repaired. Skarsgard’s Seligman is equally as compelling because his role as the concerned bystander to this wild woman’s exposed and compromised soul reveals just how hurting for attention and consideration he is in reality. Well schooled in his notable bubble of literature, music and philosophy Seligman needs Joe’s one-woman audience to guide and educate so as to make his self-worth meaningful.
Indeed, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is as tragic as it is intriguing in its examination of sexual stagnation and the misplaced emotional baggage behind one woman’s psychological befuddlement to find the answers behind her arbitrary high-wire sexcapades. In many ways Nymphomaniac: Volume I (including Volume II) is the tip of the iceberg in terms of its tame comparison to some of the hardcore internet pornography and other over-the-top fetish-minded avenues out there that generate the millions of dollars in revenue from the countless disconnected female and male Joes out there looking for an addictive diversion to balance out the inescapable sleazy flesh-chasing potential that frighteningly exists in our unpredictable, unsuspecting and imaginatively impish minds.
NOTE: Focus of New York film critic Frank Ochieng is a member of: