Nymphomaniac: Volume I

Directed By: Lars von Trier

Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Uma Thurman, and Connie Nielsen

"When the ash tree was created, it made all the other trees in the forest jealous.  It was the most beautiful tree.  You couldn't say anything bad about it.  Then, in the winter, when the ash tree lost all of its leaves, all the trees noticed the black buds and started laughing.  'Oh look!  The ash tree has had its finger in the ashes.'"
-Joe's Father (Christian Slater)

There's nothing like a racy, sex-laced movie to bring out the zealots of the world.  They scoffed at Steve McQueen's Shame a couple of years ago.  They derided Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color last year.  This year, they've launched an all-out assault on Lars von Trier's Nyphomaniac.  If you go to IMDB, you'll find that there are plenty of caustic one-star reviews of the film predating its arrival in theaters or on demand.  They frequently refer to this sex addiction drama as the worst porn documentary ever.  Well, I beg to differ with these expert opinions.  Nymphomaniac: Volume I is an intriguing tale of lustful, erotic addiction.

An old charmer named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a beaten up woman on the ground in an alleyway.  Because the woman refuses that he call an ambulance, he takes her into his home where she can recompose herself.  He offers her a cup of tea and milk.  The woman's name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and she's a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac.  While Joe believes she's just a bad human being who's committed some grave sins, Seligman argues the contrary.  He wants to know Joe's story.  She thinks he won't understand but proceeds to tell it anyway.  Joe proceeds to recount how she discovers herself at the age of two, how as a young girl (Stacy Martin) she loses her virginity to a man named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), and how she meets her needs by ruining the lives of many wives like Mrs. H (Uma Thurman).  Though this self-hating nymphomaniac only sees sins driven by lust, Seligman sees fly fishing, Fibonacci numbers, polyphony, and the humanity of it all.

Nymphomaniac: Volume I's greatest strength and weakness are the same — Lars von Trier's constant embrace of metaphors.  There's nothing inherently wrong with highlighting the parallels between fly fishing and the art of seduction.  Juxtaposing the sex-crazed Joe to an ash tree is fine by me.  The comparison of Joe's schedule of sexual encounters to polyphony is really quite clever.  In fact, these are all provocative, inventive metaphors that make for a fresh take on sex addiction.  However, there's no need for von Trier to beat us over the head with all of this.  More specifically, the long on-screen chats about these metaphors between Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård are sometimes overkill and a bit self-indulgent.

As expected, von Trier breaks up the film into several chapters.  As Nymphomaniac progresses, we see how Joe's sensuality manifests itself at various points in her young life.  From the very start of the film, von Trier focuses on creating this kinetic energy in the film to embody this.  Whether we're talking about the sounds of water pounding the alleyways, the images of water flowing down a river, or the polyphony of a church organ, von Trier finds creative ways to build the film's sensuality, aside from just depicting vigorous sex scenes.  As you can see, most of this plays into emphasizing the litany of metaphors in the movie.  Moreover, von Trier's stylistic flourishes help to stimulate his audience intellectually.  Still, it's a bit too much at times.

The acting in Nymphomaniac is top notch.  As usual, we have von Trier's frequent collaborator Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist, Melancholia) in a starring role.  For her part as Joe, she gives a haunting portrayal of this self-loathing character and provides some well-paced narration of her character's tale.  As the younger Joe, we have Stacy Martin.  Marking her big screen debut, Nymphomaniac shows that Martin was born to be wild on camera.  She's ferocious, seductive, and troubled all at once.  Martin deftly gives us a young woman fully attuned to her own sensuality.  Stellan Skarsgård gives a noble interpretation of Seligman, the film's moral compass.  Even Shia LaBeouf and Christian Slater give solid performances as Joe's Cantus Firmus and her loving father respectively.  The real scene-stealer, however, is Uma Thurman as Mrs. H.  If there is anything I will remember about this movie, it will be Thurman's brief but poignant scene as a crazed wife whose life is shattered by Joe's sexual indiscretions.  At her character's lowest point, Thurman brings down the house.

Nymphomaniac isn't for everyone.  The film is littered with "memorable experiences" — intercourse, masturbation, fellatio, and cunnilingus.  The raw, visceral nature of it all will certainly turn off some.  That being said, von Trier has crafted one compelling piece of cinema, and I'm just writing about the edited version released in the US.  I'm confident his unedited vision is much more impressive and exhilarating.  Nymphomaniac: Volume I gets a 0.03% rating.  Look for my review of Volume II in the coming weeks.