Lars von Trier is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, the keyword being “interesting.” Though the Danish director’s films tend to be hit and miss with me, I at least admire his ambition, his craft and his sense unrestrictedness, despite the fact it’s usually a part of why I don’t like some of his films. So, after the release of Melancholia and a couple Nazi related comments later, Lars announced his next film being about the erotic journey of a woman from birth to age 50 called Nymphomaniac (often stylized as NYMPH()MANIAC because…vagina). With a cast including, but not limited to, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Uma Thurman, Shia LaBeouf and Christian Slater, and the fact that the film would serve as the final entry in Lars’ “Depression Trilogy” preceded by Antichrist and Melancholia, there is an understandable degree of anticipation.
One thing that surprised me about the film was how entertaining it ended up being. This is definitely Lars von Trier’s most visually playful film to date, and frankly one of his best films overall. It begins with a man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) coming to the aide of a beaten woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alleyway that he takes into his home. They begin conversation, going from Seligman’s fishing habits to Joe telling him her life as a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac, as it seems to her to be the only way fit to fully explain how she got to that alleyway to begin with. We follow Joe from the tender age of 2 to her later years as a young adult, played in those scenes by newcomer Stacy Martin.
The film contains practically all of Lars’ trademarks. Charlotte Gainsbourg? Check. Stellan Skarsgård? Check. Handheld camerawork? Check. Very depressing and/or destructive experience of a lead female character? You betcha. More so than his other films, this one is ripe with dark humor throughout the story, with each of those moments carrying a heavy dose of tragedy, and it’s balanced very well, unlike some of his other films where the humor comes off as more awkward than funny.
One thing I found odd was Stellan Skarsgård’s character. It seems that whenever a chapter (the different segments where Joe talks about her past) ends, he goes on and on analyzing everything she just said, as if he was some sort of film student watching the film as opposed to an actual character that is a part of the story. It was quite bizarre. Interesting, sure, and provides some of the more thought provoking elements of the film, but still bizarre, and rather sloppy from a writing standpoint. If you’re the kind of guy who enjoys to pick apart and analyze films by exploring their themes, symbols and metaphors, you’ll find that movie already did half the work for you.
The acting is great from almost everyone (gee, I wonder who the exception is?). The standout for me was Stacy Martin, in what seems like her first acting role, and she does great. Considering the fact that she has to carry the film on her shoulders, (since Charlotte Gainsbourg is only on screen when she’s talking to Stellan Skarsgård and reminiscing about her life), it is great to see new talent shining, and it’ll be interesting to see how this role affects her future career. Christian Slater is fantastic as Joe’s father, and it’s nice to see Christian in a real film again; even he seemed happy that he’s in a movie that isn’t going direct-to-DVD. Uma Thurman appears for one scene, but she takes it and milks it for all it’s worth, bringing in one of the more memorable moments of the film. Like I said before, Charlotte’s role in this film is not very active, I’m guessing that is saved for Volume II, but she still does a fantastic job. Even though all she does is sit down and talk, you sense the crushing felling of self-loathing that Joe goes through and she makes the character feel heartbreakingly real. Now, I should bring up the only one who doesn’t do a good job. Look, I’m not one of those guys that hate Shia LaBeouf for whatever reason, I’ve seen him do good work, and regardless of how he may be in real life, I try not to judge. And frankly, he could have been perfectly fine in this film, if not for one of the most atrocious attempts at a British (?) accent that I have heard in a long time. We’re talking Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins level of bad, and at least Dick Van Dyke had charm, likability and a genuine good-heartedness to him, Shia’s character, Jerôme, the man that Joe lost her virginity to as a teenager and later went to work for, is someone who I just didn’t find likable or interesting in any way. So, you could argue that he was just playing the character the way he was meant to be played, and he does good in that regard, but that still doesn’t excuse the accent.
Do I even have to bother to tell you that the film is very explicit? It’s called Nymphomaniac, and it’s a very fitting title. Would I call it porn? No, it is first and foremost a drama that is about sexual experiences and the addiction to it that some deal with. As the film goes on, the explicitness of the film ends up making the graphic content relatively mundane by the end, and in a sense, that is a clever way for the film to get its point across. Sure the scenes are beautifully filmed, like most of Lars’ works, and add to that his matter-of-factly presentation, the scenes never come across as exploitative, erotic or even there for simple shock value. Out of all the films I’ve seen that include real sex (granted, the penetration in this film are from stunt performers digitally placed over the real actors and there are some prosthetics used in a couple scenes), this film is probably the one of the few that used it in a way where it feels necessary and works for the film. This is one of the aspects where Lars feels right at home, which may be due to the fact that he was raised in a family of nudists. See what I mean when I said “interesting”?
In the end, whether or not someone will like this film is completely up to personal taste. Nymphomaniac is a provocative and entertaining drama that brings the audience up close and personal to a story that most would rather turn away from. That is where Lars von Trier succeeds the most as a filmmaker, and Nymphomaniac Vol. I display his talent at its finest. Here’s hoping Volume II is just as good.
Side Note: There’s a Rammstein song that plays in the beginning and end of the film that feels completely out of tone. It’s a minor thing, but it really bugged me. Anyway, if you are still interested in seeing Nymphomaniac Vol. I, it is currently available On Demand, with a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on March 21st. Volume II will be available On Demand on March 20th and in select theaters April 4th.