Oh Lars von Trier, you naughty boy you. I’ve seen both Volume 1 and Volume 2 of his new project Nymphomaniac, but I’ll be just focusing on the first part here and I can safely say that it’s both exactly what you expect and unlike anything you can imagine. Frankly, this is both the divisive filmmaker at his most divisive but also at his most in tune with his audience. He’s certainly challenging the viewer, but in a less aggressive way than usual, so that’s something new from him. There also has to be a ton of credit given to discovering Stacy Martin, who’s a newcomer and an absolute revelation. She’s the star of this part to me, though Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf, and Stellan Skarsgård are very good here as well (and that continues into Volume 2 for them when Gainsbourg comes front and center, though I’ll tackle that one in a separate review closer to its release date), alongside scene stealing turns from Christian Slater and Uma Thurman. There are times that the actors threaten to become overshadowed by the nudity/graphic sexuality, but they overcome it. If anything challenges them, it’s when the director decides to focus in on fly-fishing or Fibonacci Sequences in relation to nymphomania. If it sounds pretentious, well…it is at times, but this part is actually a bit of fun as well, with a dark undercurrent of humor around the edges. Nymphomaniac isn’t a joy ride or anything like that, but it’s the closest thing to that von Trier is likely to make. He’s certainly pushing buttons, but with a lighter touch than usual.
After a moment in the dark, we come across Joe (Gainsbourg) lying on the group, obviously the victim of some sort of an assault. She’s seen by a good samaritan named Seligman (Skarsgård), who helps her to his apartment to rest and heal. There, she begins to explain that she’s a self diagnosed nymphomaniac and goes on to recite her sexual history to him. We see her experimenting a bit as a child, but her erotic awakening of sorts begins in her teenage years (played there by Martin), including when she loses her virginity to a man who’ll become the closest thing to the love of her life in Jerome (LaBeouf). Her and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) have a contest on a train to see who can sleep with the most men, create a pseudo secret society revolving around their exploits, and just have a ton of sex. Sometimes it goes just fine, though sometimes things get a bit messy, like for instance when a lover’s wife Mrs. H (Thurman) barges in on them. As these tales unfurl, Seligman is surprisingly nonplussed a lot, offering logical explanations and tying it into his own interests, including books and the aforementioned fly-fishing. We don’t quite end on a cliffhanger, but it’s made clear that things are just getting started and that Joe’s evolution won’t be a predominantly happy one. The through line of it all, besides the adult Joe’s conversations with Seligman, is Jerome, but you’ll have to see the film to completely understand what I’m talking about.
The star of Volume 1 in my mind is undoubtedly Stacy Martin. A naked performance in every way you can imagine, she’s mesmerizingly good here. There’s just something about the way that Martin handles the part that suggests that she’s really going places. I was a bit disappointed whenever she wasn’t on the screen, and that has very little to do with the nudity. The way she interprets the character is just phenomenal. I’m not the world’s biggest von Trier fan, but I think Martin may have given my favorite performance from any of his films to date. Tied in here is of course Charlotte Gainsbourg, though she and Stellan Skarsgård really only sit around and talk in this one. Still, they have an interesting chemistry, as their debates become way more compelling than they probably should be, especially when some of the more esoteric and pretentious subjects come up. In the rare non sexual part of the film we have Christian Slater as Joe’s father, and he really makes a perfect dad. I sincerely hope that Slater can parlay this into some more roles where he’s a father figure, since it fits him well. A hospital scene in particular is some of the best work he’s done in a very long time. Uma Thurman only has that one scene (yes, the one where she asks to show the children “the whoring bed”), but she nails it. This brings me to Shia LaBeouf, who’s actually perfectly cast here. I don’t want to say too much about LaBeouf’s role, especially since it evolves in Volume 2, but this is the sort of performance that reminds you what he can do. Ignore his recent shenanigans and just appreciate the performance. The other supporting parts include the aforementioned Sophie Kennedy Clark as well as Connie Nielsen playing Joe’s mother, and while everyone is good, it’s Martin who walks away with the movie.
More often than not with Lars von Trier’s work, I admire his filmmaking skill and praise his direction for the most part while wishing he would let someone else write his scripts. Here though, his screenplay is up to snuff, so I was never pulled out of the movie by him trying to show off. Sometimes he walks the line of overdoing it with his visual cues, but for the most part I bought what he was selling this time around. Yes, he perhaps needlessly adds hardcore sexual content to the proceedings, but never during the two hour running time of Volume 1 did I feel like it was completely pointless and dragging the film down (the pacing is pretty good, though the split between Volume 1 and Volume 2 comes at a fairly arbitrary point). If anything, it brings about the occasional moment of black comedy. That being said, this is clearly an extreme flick, so be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. There are a few moments that border on the shocking.
When Nymphomaniac reaches the end of Volume 1, you’re almost assuredly down to see what’s up next for the cast. While I’m not 100% sure that I could have dealt with this as a single four or five hour cinematic experience, in a pair of two hour chunks, it’s very manageable. Fans of von Trier will be all over this one, while even those of you like me who hold him at arm’s length will likely be at least partially entertained. I’ll have my thoughts on Volume 2 soon, but for now, Volume 1 has my recommendation, so give it a shot.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!