As you may have deduced from the title, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" is certainly not a film for the masses. Written and directed by Lars von Trier, a self-stylized, self-aggrandized filmmaker, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" begins the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-described sex addict.
We meet Joe in a dark, dirty rain-soaked alley, lying in her own blood. She is discovered by an older man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who takes her back to his sparse apartment. There she begins the long narrative of how she ended up where he found her.
We're never given a clear reason for Joe's penchant for sex. She enjoyed a close relationship with her father, played by Christian Slater --- a rather odd choice. He simply doesn't seem to fit in. Supposedly, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" takes place in England, but one can never be sure.
Young Joe (Stacy Martin) makes a decision early on to lose her virginity to a brash hoodlum who owns a motor bike. Jerome (Shia LaBeouf --- another strange casting selection) obliges Joe, but in a perfunctory, demeaning manner. They meet again in the film, when Joe and Jerome are young adults, but that relationship doesn't fare well then, either.
In the meantime, von Trier jumps back and forth between Joe with Seligman and young Joe with her many conquests. Though "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" is extremely sexually explicit --- pornographic, really --- none of it is very stimulating. It's almost downright boring. I'm not quite sure what von Trier is trying to accomplish with this film. Perhaps we'll find out in "Nymphomaniac: Volume II".
Gainsbourg is a wise choice for Joe. She and Skarsgard establish a symbiotic rhythm initially, and it works well. Both are tremendously accomplished actors, and their chemistry is captivating --- it draws us in and keeps us spellbound.
The same cannot be said for Martin and LaBeouf. I cannot comprehend this pairing. It also seems out of character for von Trier to use an actor like LaBeouf. While I admire his acting in certain films, it feels incongruous to watch him in a von Trier film.
The best scene in "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" highlights the scene-stealing abilities of Uma Thurman. She plays Mrs. H, the wife of one of young Joe's suitors. When she appears at Joe's door with her two small sons in tow, to show them where it all happened --- why their dad left --- it's both wretchedly funny and cringe-inducing. By far the best performance from Thurman in quite a while --- and the most interesting one in this movie.
Though I loathed von Trier's last film, "Melancholia", I must say that, despite all of the ridiculous sex scenes, I found "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" intriguing. I'm actually looking forward, perhaps with dread, to "Volume II". What becomes of Joe --- and how does von Trier manage to tie this all together?
Opinion: Mild See It Now!
Forty years ago, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I", the latest film from Danish director Lars von Trier, would have garnered an "X" rating. Now it's simply an "NC-17" which means that no one under the age of 17 will be admitted. I'm not so sure that 18-year-old kids today could handle the prurient nature of the movie, even though the graphic sex scenes and full nudity are not gratuitous.
Von Trier also wrote the script about a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) found lying in an alley, bloodied and semi-conscious, by an older gentleman, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Nursing Joe back to relative comfort and recovery, he elicits from her, much like a seasoned psychologist, the story of her life as a self-admitted sexual obsessive, or in cruder terms, a nymphomaniac.
Most of the film is told in flashback showcasing 23-year-old Stacy Martin in her feature debut as the younger Joe. To say this movie is not for everyone would be an understatement. Unknowing patrons might be apt to walk out before the picture's conclusion, although the title alone should give pause to conservative moviegoers. Although I suspected, and confirmed later, that prosthetic devices --- extremely lifelike and convincing --- were used in the filming, it will be difficult for some to forget the images on screen.
Once the initial shock of the graphic material fades, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" is quite a compelling story. A very good cast, which also includes Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman and Christian Slater, weaves an intriguing tale of loneliness, temptation, lust and loss.
Early on, young Joe and a girlfriend board a train to see which of them can orchestrate the most sexual conquests. The prize? Ostensibly, a bag of candy, but it's really an exercise in who has the most chutzpah, and who can seduce the most men. These scenes go on for quite a while, culminating in a brazen display of oral sex.
Later, young Joe runs into an old "flame", Jerome (LaBeouf) --- actually it was a coldly calculated sexual encounter --- who is now a business executive. It's quite a reunion as Joe asserts her personality in rebuffing him.
The most engaging sequence of the film has young Joe bedding numerous sexual partners, many in the same day, treating the men as mere objects. One scenario in particular, involving a middle-aged married man known as Mr. H (Hugo Speer), evolves into a demeaning episode for the man, followed by an explosive display of spousal rage by his wife, Mrs. H (Thurman). It's a remarkable side of Thurman's acting abilities we haven't seen before.
My only problem with this movie is the physical dissimilarities between the two actresses playing Joe. It's hard for me to imagine they are the same person.
"Nymphomaniac: Volume II" is being released on the heels of the first picture, and with good reason --- many questions remain. For example, we don't yet know much of the "older" Joe's story. Like Jeanne, I, too, am looking forward to the follow-up from von Trier.
Opinion: See It Now!