Review: Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac' Volume I

Reviews
by Beth Hanna
March 20, 2014 12:54 PM
4 Comments
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Charlotte Gainsbourg in 'Nymphomaniac'

In Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac Volume I,” a bruised and bloody woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is found lying in a back alley by a lonely man (Stellan Skarsgard). Once he ushers her into his home and gets her situated in bed with tea, he invites the woman to tell her story. How did she get there? 

Thus begins Joe’s tale of nymphomania, or as she would have it, a lifelong search for “sensation.” As she recounts the games she’d play as a youngster to pique arousal, and her loss of virginity to a boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), Skarsgard continually interrupts to point out how her story parallels that of river trout. He’s intellectualizing her sordid tales, in a wickedly humorous way, which is indeed what “Nymphomaniac” is doing, too.

The first volume is largely a comedy. It’s sardonic and detached, which has the unfortunate effect of keeping Joe at arm’s length. She feels less like a real character than a symbol. This of course could be seen as a meta commentary of some sort by von Trier -- we feel at a distance from Joe, cut off from her, as she does from sex -- but it’s still frustrating.

Sophie Kennedy and Stacy Martin in 'Nymphomaniac'

Formally, von Trier is ace, as always. The largely handheld film is shot by Manuel Alberto Claro (“Melancholia”) in rich browns and greys. Its drab palette has significance, as Joe mentions that her only sin is “that she’s always demanded more of the sunset.” She’s looking for color -- for feeling, for sensation -- but hasn’t fully found it, despite her endless series of orgasms. Meanwhile, von Trier is clearly having fun with visual gimmicks, overlaying geometrical symbols and mathematical equations on the images as Joe tells her tale.

Joe’s misadventures play out in chapters, as we know from the film’s lengthy publicity campaign with its “appetizer” teaser spots. This includes a teenage Joe fucking and sucking men on a train, in a competitive game with her friend; going to work at an office where Jerome now works as manager, falling in love with him and then losing track of him; later keeping up an elaborate sex schedule, juggling seven or eight men a night (which results in a marital ordeal with a frenzied Uma Thurman); and dealing with the slow, painful death of her father (Christian Slater). 

In all these chapters, young Joe is played by lanky Stacy Martin, good but also inscrutable. Meanwhile, the sex is graphic but cold, part of the elaborate joke of the film. You wanted sex? Well, here it is. Enjoying it? No, didn't think so.

The penultimate chapter with Slater is where the film shifts from comedy to tragedy, and von Trier somewhat salvages our emotional interest in Joe, though it does feel like too little too late. Reactions in the Sundance audience seemed to be mixed, more hyperbolic than my own -- uproarious laughter but also walkouts. We’ll see where “Volume II” goes. Joe’s tormenting interests are in the flesh, though I have yet to feel like she’s made of flesh and blood.

"Nymphomaniac Volume I” is now available on VOD. It hits theaters this Friday, March 21, with "Volume 2" now on VOD and arriving theatrically April 4. Our review of "Volume II" is here.

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4 Comments

  • Stephen | April 7, 2014 11:01 AMReply

    This movie was awful. Dreadfully slow, boring and terribly acted. The scenes with older Jerome had mild humor, and the awkwardness of the Uma Thurman scene was the only redeeming quality. It's the kind of movie I would expect from a recent film school graduate.

  • adaa | February 6, 2014 7:10 PMReply

    Vous pouvez maintenant télécharger
    tiny.cc/nexvax

  • DomizianoA | January 24, 2014 6:11 PMReply

    It sounds however always as Cinema of great, fascinating, human research into the feelings, into existential despair or growth or trouble awakening, or worse, on existential realization of a human and real, very real (even though at the movies always amputated or simply overlooked or forgotten, lately!) realization over our often painful and most intimated conditions! I am not surprised of people's laughing or walking out! They cannot even imagine these days not to be "courted" by a story, but instead to be presented with a real dissatisfaction. Not to mention that, we all know it too well, in America, sex in the movies is still taboo, unless "tastefully" shot and presented as more of a show than a real, sometimes painful, sometimes excruciating, uncontrollable event! And if Von Trier, once more time, is able to achieve such reactions, and, to talk with realism, and, yet with visual poetic beauty of the human condition as a form of provocative way to make us all think how disjointed and hypocrite, how merciless and unaware we are, then he must have once again made a great and important film!

  • DomizianoA | January 24, 2014 6:29 PM

    I apologize, i wrote with way too much rush: This is what i wanted to say:
    "It sounds however still like Cinema of great, fascinating, touching exploration: almost like a human research into the feelings, into a tragic existential despair, or a deeper look into either a troubled awakening, or a dissertation on whether our weaknesses are today accepted or selfishly never addressed, maybe for fear, maybe for a coldness we fear toward any imperfection! But it could be as well a very personal meditation over our most crucial existential realizations, sometimes just human and real, very real (even though at the movies always amputated or simply overlooked or forgotten, lately!) that could just bring us only over often way too painful and way too intimate landscapes, a terrifying look at how the exterior today perceives the unconscious, if there is even such a thought left, to begin with! I am not surprised of people's laughing or walking out with publicly exaggerated reactions! It's the old typical self defense system! When we just don't wanna see something uncomfortable just because it may attack us or put us all on a stake! Audiences cannot even imagine these days not to be presented with material that makes you truly discuss, or think deep! And not entertain! They think at images as just a way to be amazed or "courted" by a story, but, God forbids if someone is even daring to present us with a real dissatisfaction, or with a look over lost morals for which we believe not to have time for, or maybe we prefer to think that we don't have any time for!! Not to mention that, we all know it too well, in America, sex in the movies is still tabu, unless "tastefully" shot, and presented as more of a greatly choreographed show than a real, sometimes painful, sometimes excruciating, uncontrollable event! And if Von Trier, once more time, is able to achieve such reactions, and, to talk with realism, and, yet with visual, poetic beauty of the human condition as a form of provocative way to make us all think on how disjointed and hypocrite, how merciless and unaware we are or can be, then he must have once again made a great and important, poignant film!

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