Nymphomaniac: Volume 1

nymphomaniac-volume-1_posteAs I was watching the first volume of Lars Von Trier’s sex epic, Nymphomaniac, I couldn’t really figure out what all the fuss is about as this film isn’t as shocking as the mainstream media might want you to believe. Sure it does feature abundant full frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes – with some porn actors performing as “stunt” doubles for the lead cast – but following recent films such as Blue is the Warmest Color, Stranger by the Lake or even The Canyons, this mix of sex and artistry isn’t as groundbreaking as you might expect – Andy Warhol was actually a pioneer in that field.

Nymphomaniac isn’t either another gratuitous attempt at provocation, as you might have heard. As the title suggests, this is just the story of a woman who likes sex, and lots of it, seen from a feminine perspective and this is probably what might annoy some of the audience and critics the most. Joe played by French singer/actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist, Melancholia) is a strong and independent woman who uses men to satisfy her desires like they were puppets. She uses them and throws them away when she’s done with them – she even uses dices to randomly pick those who stay and those who have to go.

When the movie opens, we find Joe unconscious in the streets, victim of a beating. A lonely man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård – Melancholia), brings her home to recover and the two start a long conversion where she recounts her exploits while he listens to her like a priest would do. This confession has no religious contest though, Seligman using some of his hobbies – mostly fly fishing – to relate to her experience. His stories are part of the running humor that turns Nymphomaniac’s heavy premise into such entertaining and light-hearted tale. Rather than trying to provoke us, Mr. Von Trier’s clearly wants to have fun with his audience. Not only are Joe’s adventures portrayed with colorful and joyous tones – at least in this first volume – but Seligman’s metaphorical monologues have been meticulous placed to slow down the narration and frustrate spectators who would want to get to the point faster.

Besides the humor, Mr. Von Trier’s fans should find familiar elements here, from the free-spirit reminiscent of his Dogma script The Idiots to the bare setting used for Seligman’s apartment, which recalls Dogville. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Lars Von Trier’s film without familiar faces, from Ms. Gainsbourg to Mr. Skarsgård – and more to come in Volume 2. However some poor casting choices, which I’m suspecting aim at widening the film’s international audience, are truly hurting Nymphomaniac, refraining it from being such a great achievement.

In the title role, Ms. Gainsbourg is both rough and damaged, having already proven she can deliver fearless performances in Mr. Von Trier’s indigestible Anti-Christ – and the young Joe played by Stacy Martin showcases similar bravura here. Mr. Skarsgård also perfectly incarnates this calm, asexual and dorky man while Uma Thurman is a great cast-against type as a scorned, devastated wife – you can imagine how Quentin Tarantino’s bride could have actually chopped off both her husband and Joe as payback.

The presence of Shia LaBeouf in a central role however affects greatly the whole credibility of the movie and, to be frank I could more easily imagine him making love to a transformer rather than with a sex-crazed European nymph. The fact that his character is Joe’s object of obsession, almost assimilated to a god, lessens the story’s integrity, the actor being too bland and boring to embody this. Same thing with Christian Slater as Joe’s dad, as the actor seems to have wandered on the wrong movie set, unconvincingly reciting his lines. While I am fully aware that sex films are known for their “wooden” acting, the presence of these two actors seriously lessens this work, making Nymphomaniac Volume 1 a strong but flawed entry in Mr. Von Trier’s body of work.

Director: Lars von Trier – Actors: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård – Running Time: 2:05 – Year: 2014 – Country: Denmark

The following two tabs change content below.
Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.