The implicit trait of Lars von Trier’s brand of envelope-pushing work is the power of provocation, so much that now it’s not a matter of “if”, but of “how” will he continue to develop his radical oeuvre. Whether it’s in the form of an apocalyptic scenario in Melancholia, an imaginary microcosm of the human condition in Dogville, or a sacrilegious odyssey into darkness in Antichrist , the perversely brilliant and divisive Danish auteur has always shown a predilection for telling stories about the feminine empowerment in very sexualized manners. He graphically delves into the demonization of female sexuality through a mutilation sequence in one film, exposes Nicole Kidman as an object victimized by a crowd of depraved men, or flips the coin an turns Kirsten Dunst into a rapist bride while the world is ending.
Sex and the oppressive way in which it has been used against women is clearly a recurring theme in his work, so it is not a surprise that in his latest, and perhaps most ambitious project, he decided to explore it in greater and even more explicit terms. In Nymphomaniac: Vol. I Von Trier gives birth to his greatest heroine yet, one that embodies all the qualities of the previous ones and utilizes them as weapons to combat the romanticized idea of love. Serving as the protagonist’s origin story, this first part is supposed to set the tone for the more shocking and grotesque second installment. Played by Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult and by Stacy Martin in her younger years, Joe is a sex addict, a woman who carries the shame of her actions but doesn’t justify them or explains them via childhood trauma. She owns her self-proclaimed despicable personality, and she is aware that the lack of a reasonable cause for her insatiable sexual cravings makes her condition all the more disconcerting for the outside world.
Beaten and unglamorously left lying on a dark alley, which can presumably be attributed to her condition, adult Joe is taken in by Good Samaritan Seligman, played by Stellan Skarsgård. Reluctant to share the reasons for her state at first, eventually Joe opens up to the tolerant and heavily philosophical man. She begins by clarifying she is aware of how terrible of a person she is, and then exposes the intricacies of her unorthodox lifestyle. The promiscuous storyteller goes on to speak of her first time with an unsentimental man named Jerome, played by the now infamous Shia LaBeouf. The unsatisfactory experience is nonetheless relevant to her development as a chronic pleasure seeker.
Over tea, they discuss an analogy between fly-fishing and young Joe’s competition with her best friend to seduce as many men as possible on a moving train. The prize: a bag of colorful chocolates. Seligman listens to the blunt anecdotes without a hint of judgment. He attentively tries to make sense of her irrational behavior unconcerned with the morality of it, but with her motivations. With time, the actual intercourse becomes irrelevant, is the process, the psychological power trip, and the rejection towards intimacy that define Joe’s actions. She devices a form of systematic dating that uses a dice to determine how she will treat each one of her many partners. Objectifying them by denying them individuality is the key to her success. All of this serves to satisfy her need to be in control, and to prove that emotions are a sign of weakness. But of course, her motto: “love is lust with jealousy added”, changes when she realizes that the exact feeling she despises is the only thing that makes carnal relationships meaningful.
Surprisingly comedic and never dull, this volume offers plenty of outstanding performances including a fantastically amusing Uma Thurman in a small but memorable role. Needless to say the work of Stacy Martin is outright fearless. Perennially flirtatious, yet vulnerable, she embodies the contradictions of her self-assured wickedness. Joe fights tenderness with indifference. Rarely seeing them as people, she disposes of her victims by creating illusions and encouraging their attachment, only to then shatter their hopes for believing she could be capable of monogamy. But clearly in all her rigorous endeavors to separate herself from anything that resembles affection, there is a visible emptiness. However, is not in her to simply give up the flesh for the soul, and as the preview clips from the second volume insinuate, she will try to fill that void with pain.
Von Trier’s storytelling is dynamic, poignant, and surprisingly accessible without leaving behind the thought provoking poetry that characterizes his work. As usual, his investigation on the human condition focuses on those dark corners that exist in a gray area between perversion and divinity. Sexuality itself is not important to him, but rather how the diversity of the sexual experiences of his characters shape them in the face of the outrageous circumstance she places them in. His vision champions female liberation and turns their sexual curiosity into an asset and not a demonized flaw. Even with all the attention placed on the pornographic nature of his images, this is, above all, a film about love. Not in a simplistic way at all, but one could argue that the Danish provocateur is the most feminist male filmmaker alive.