By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 22, 2014)
Lars von Trier’s lasciviously entitled Nymph()maniac: Vol. 1 could be renamed “The Joylessness of Sex”. Not that I was expecting to be titillated; if there is one thing I’ve learned about Denmark’s #1 cinematic provocateur, it is that he is nothing, if not impish. Yes, the film has explicit sex scenes, but there is much more ado about men, women, families, fly fishing, music theory, mathematics, life, the universe and everything. One could say that Von Trier has found the intersection of The Tree of Life and Emmanuelle.
In the noirish opening scene, a middle-aged man (Stellan Skarsgard) out for an evening stroll stumbles across a brutally beaten and barely conscious woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in a dark alley. Despite red flags (she adamantly refuses to be taken to a hospital or to file a police report), the kindhearted gentleman takes her to his modest apartment to recuperate. The man, who is named Seligman, tucks her into bed in a fatherly fashion and offers her tea and sympathy.
Naturally, he is curious about how she got herself in this predicament. While initially reticent to open up to this total stranger, the woman, who simply calls herself “Joe”, decides to start from the very beginning. In fact, she’s about to give him quite an earful; she informs Seligman that she is a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac and begins a full confessional (according to Google, elig is German for “blessed”…interpret that as you wish).
And so begins Joe’s Scheherazadian tale, with four actresses playing her at various ages from toddler through young womanhood (most of Young Joe’s screen time belongs to 22 year-old newcomer Stacy Martin).
We learn how Joe (as a toddler) first discovers her sexuality. Later, she recounts how she chooses to be deflowered (as a teenager) at the hands of a self-absorbed lunkhead named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), who displays more passion for tinkering with his motorcycle. We eventually witness the most defining moment of her budding proclivity, when her more sexually precocious BFF, “B” (Sophie Kennedy Clark) talks her into a one-on-one contest: whoever accrues the most zipless fucks by the end of a several-hour train ride wins a bag of sweets.
Joe recounts a close relationship with her father (Christian Slater), a bit of a cosmic muffin who takes her on nature walks and delivers soliloquies about flora (“It’s actually the souls of the trees we’re seeing in the winter,” he assures her). The story occasionally returns to the present tense, mostly so fly fishing enthusiast Seligman can interject metaphorical observations via quotes from The Compleat Angler.
As Joe drones on, dispassionately cataloging her exploits, one word remains conspicuously absent: “love”. Alas, Joe’s wild sexual odyssey has been like a ride through the desert on a horse with no name…’cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.
Joe’s emotional disconnect comes to the fore in a seriocomic scene that could have dropped in from a Woody Allen film. Joe remains nonplussed while being confronted by the apoplectic wife of one of her lovers (Uma Thurman), who has trailed her cheating hubby to Joe’s apartment with kids in tow. “Let’s go see Daddy’s favorite place!” the spurned wife spits with mock perkiness, as she points her children toward “the whoring bed”, adding “It’ll stand you in good stead later in therapy”. In her brief 5-minute turn Thurman nearly steals the film with what I’d call an Oscar-worthy performance.
I feel like I’m only giving you half a review, because there is a Vol. 2 which I haven’t seen yet (it opens in Seattle April 4). So in that context, I suppose that the worthiness of Vol. 1 can be best determined by whether von Trier left me wanting more. And…He did. I’m dying to know (as Paul Harvey used to say) “the rest of the story”. Like nearly all of the director’s films, prepare to be challenged, repulsed, amused, befuddled, even shocked…but never bored.
A word about the “controversial” sex scenes, which are being labeled “pornographic” by some. Really? It’s 2014, and we’re still not over this hurdle? I have to chuckle, for two reasons: 1) this is really nothing new in cinema, especially when it comes to Scandinavian filmmakers, who have always been ahead of the curve in this department. Am I the only one who remembers the “controversial” full frontal nudity and “pornography” in the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow)…which played in U.S. theaters 47 flippin’ years ago, fergawdsake? And 2) at the end of the day, Nymph()maniac Vol. 1 isn’t about the sex, any more than the director’s apocalyptic drama Melancholia was about the end of the world. And as any liberated adult who may have glimpsed genitalia in a film (or locker room), and lived to tell the tale, will attest, that ain’t the end of the world, either.