Graphic pornographic content but not a pornographic film, this Danish film explores sex addiction in ways that an American film would not dare. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is the newest Lars von Trier avante-garde provocation, the most demented but artistically poetic of filmmakers – but it is films like this one that show he knows not just about film, but about human life. If you take a look at international would-be wunderkinds Nicolas Winding Refn or Olivier Assayas, they have the gift of creating unique cinematic images without knowing anything about human life. Here is a four-hour film, being released into two digestible volumes, that will never find commercial acceptance but can find a subversive audience fascinated in the subject of human nature extremes. Vol. 2 review.
The opening shots are of Jo (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has been left (we assume sexually) battered in an alley, and brought into care by a kindly older man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who has spent his life more interested in fly-fishing than sex. He has a pragmatic, clinical look at the human species, an evolutionary science type of worldview. “You don’t want to hear about my life story. I’m a bad person,” Jo says. But she will recount it, and we expect after the flashbacks that Seligman will be shocked, infuriated, but no. When Jo recalls that she got wet and had a sexual response following a family member’s death, Seligman tells her that’s a normal human response, a biological defense mechanism that happens in some humans more than others. Leave it to Von Trier to deconstruct human beings to the debased inner animal we all are, and that intelligence and sophistication through experience is what transcend us beyond our origins.
We are granted access to a woman’s entire sexual history, someone who has lived to the extreme side. I can’t deny that the film is achingly slow for a few stretches, as with any Lars von Trier film for that matter, but it’s amazing how he can come up with something in every new chapter to blow and expand your mind. The young Jo is played by newcomer Stacy Martin, a ripe wantonly sexual being. We see her lose her virginity to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), service herself for free to six guys on a train as a contest with her other slut friend, and construct her life so she could have sex regularly with eight different guys every night and work an 8-hour shift around that to support her life. It’s not one guy that appeals to her (she has one favorite, who she likens his sex appeal to a jungle cat coming in for his prey), it’s the appeal and sensation of eight guys, one after another, finding use of her. And the exhilaration of, can I say this (?), over-stimulation from sexual exhaustion.
There are too many men at one point, so Jo uses an arbitrary game to decide who will be in her nightly round-up and who will be dropped – using dice, a game of chance, to decide each guy’s use of her. This becomes a compulsion, since the thrill and chance of outcome becomes arousing in letting dice/fate decide. With the glut of sexual addiction films in recent years (“Shame” might be best), this is perhaps the most provocative, explorative, and all-consuming of those peering into the catalyst of compulsion, too, as Seligman analyzing the adult Jo’s past for her. The flashbacks are explicit, if you are repulsed by the proposition of seeing a montage of bare circumcised and un-circumcised penises, then that might seal you away for good from ever seeing this film. But “Nymphomaniac” is also about sexual situations, the before and after cause and effect. Jo runs into first-lay Jerome later in life, at first denying him sex and then becoming all-consumed about wanting him all over again (and as to the why’s, which I’ll leave to you to discover), and an episode where a man has left his wife and children to live with Jo, who is disinterested in having a live-in partner. The wife (Uma Thurman) shows up at the door, in a sensational verbal sequence with her children watching-on, and Jo unequipped to handle an adult, mature situation.
What can I say about the acting? Gainsbourg is riveting as the wounded adult Jo resting in bed while she recounts her entire life, which put sex as number one criteria and everything else at a far down the totem second criteria. We will see more of Gainsbourg, as a thirty-something and forty-something aged Jo when Volume 2 comes out next month. Skarsgaard does the kind of perceptive, sympathetic acting that never wins awards. LaBeouf does the most interesting and compelling acting yet of an actor who has spent his early career being misused. Christian Slater seems improbably cast as Jo’s good-hearted father, a father figure who has subtle pathos of virtue that are unlikely but implacable. Connie Nielsen, is less interesting but does what is required, playing Jo’s cold and unfeeling mother. And Martin is so unbelievably good as young Jo that she had me thinking I was watching Gainsbourg, just a younger version.
Von Trier lets you know outright from the start with monstrous heavy metal music (a strange but perhaps fitting cue) that this will be a film experience about degradation and self-inflicted debasement. Jo is conscious of the word “shame” and applies it to herself in a way that describes herself as a bad person that is undeserving of recovery and spiritual transformation. We perhaps think that Jo is ready for spiritual transformation, that sex to her now is a delegated compulsion she cannot escape. Maybe Jo is unready to talk about spiritual transformation at all, and being “bad” is her pride. Von Trier has us wondering.
I would have preferred not to apply a grade to Vol. 1 until I’ve seen Vol. 2. The end credits of Vol. 1 offer rapid-fire shots coming in Vol. 2, which promises more visceral sexual imagery, more vivid debasement and self-punishment than part one. Von Trier perhaps knows addiction gets deeper and more intense in search of the elusive highs? And perhaps that cinema is a place of voyeurism, as well as a place to let us vicariously feel something of extreme human nature unfamiliar to us otherwise? We will see. If Vol. 2 is the visual endorphin high and brilliant deconstruction of the body and soul that I hope it is, then I will reconfigure my 4.5 stars of Vol. 1 to a raised 5 stars.
Why is this Vol. 1 so graphic and why is Vol. 2 promising to be even more graphic, to what purpose? I feel I just explained that, but to add another reason, we see who we are inside by how we surrender and perform sexually in our most intimate moments. Jo is a mesmerizing case study. Haven’t you wondered why some people can have sex with a thousand people in a lifetime while others have sex with only one? This isn’t about wrong or right, this is about understanding the human condition. “Nymphomaniac” undergoes the provocative road to explore some of the great mysteries of life and the behavior that goes with it.
Note: The first three Film Cousins are Lars von Trier films, the fourth “Shame,” is by director Steve McQueen.
118 Minutes. Unrated. Adults Only. Filmed in Denmark but all in English language.
DARK DRAMA / SEX ADDICTION / WEEKEND REFLECTION MOVIE