Sex, in some form or another, has always been a spectator’s sport. That includes online pornography, reading a Playboy (just for the articles of course), or even painting nude models together for the sake of art. Despite rising hemlines and deeper v-necks, many of us are still sexual prudes. Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 shows us another world where sex is not a taboo, but a necessity, much like breathing.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found beaten and bloodied on the floor in an alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes her in and tends to her wounds while she starts explaining how her female anatomy was the cause of her current state. The story starts at the very beginning, as a child, and progresses well into her early twenties. We witness her innocently discover her own female anotomy, then the loss of her virginity to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) and a lot of meaningless sex and sexual acts along the way. That includes an awkward altercation with a married man’s wife (Uma Thurman) and his children.
I’ve always been a fan of Lars von Trier. His films, while always controversial, are always full of such beautiful imagery wrought with symbolism that requires multiple viewings to even grasp it all. Nymphomaniac is no exception. One thing to keep in mind is that this volume 1 of a 2 volume piece, so I can only judge it as a part and not the whole. That being said, this film is more than enough to keep you entertained and intrigued well past the slideshow of different penises they show.
Von Trier takes us on a journey through the life of nymphomaniac who denounces everything about love. Our anti-hero Joe goes through life seeking pleasure in any way she can, no matter the consequences. She can only express her emotions through sex, which makes for a humorously, awkward moment after her father (Christian Slater) dies. As always, the actors all do a great job, especially those who have to fake an orgasm. My favorite scene involves a clearly unstable Uma Thurman using her children as a weapon of guilt.
What makes this film different from any other von Trier film is how the story is displayed for us. We are the invisible audience for a narrative story being told by Joe, and commented on by the real audience, Seligman. Instead of leaving us to decrypt von Trier’s typical, haunting imagery, we have Seligman playing intermediary and interpreting Joe’s actions into hilarious paralleling fishing terms or aptly presented music composing process.
This change-up is actually perfect because we end up spending less time trying to decipher the imagery and more time understanding Joe as a character. Understanding Joe and seeing the experiences she goes through is necessary for you to even begin to understand the subject matter of the film. Nymphomania is often demonized as a person who just wants to have sex, but von Trier unapologetically shows us all these sexual situations and how it is more of an addiction and less of a choice.
The use of dark humor and creative metaphors makes this an enjoyable experience, but only if you are open to let the ideas and imagery penetrate deep inside of you. You need to embrace the sometime gratuitous shows of human anatomy firmly with both hands. Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 shows the gradual, arousing rise of Joe’s life, but the other half promises to show the fall after the climax. I’m looking forward to it. Mind if I smoke?
RATING: ★★★★★★★★(8/10 stars)
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