Nymphomaniac: Volume I Review
When a director tries to make a meaningful movie about a rather taboo subject, the ending result can be a blessing or a curse. Sometimes, it rather ends up in the latter, we as a culture still seem stiffened when it comes to having adult discussions about adult ideas and adult feelings. I understand that we live in a world with a certain degree of censorship, I know that adults are not the only age that lives in our country. At the same time, does that mean adult subjects should not be taken seriously on film?
If there is a master of adult ideas on film, its Lars von Trier. I mean, good Lord, take a look at "Breaking The Waves," or "Dancer In The Dark," or "Dogville," or "Antichrist" or "Melancholia." von Trier has a stylish eye, no doubt, but he always has something to say about his subjects. He constantly takes everything to the next level. He does so because he never waters everything down, he never tries to side-step anything. When a creates a world, it feels like a world that is occupied by real people, and then he smothers your face in that world. Lars von Trier had to make "Nymphomaniac" because he is the only artist currently working who could give the story the devotion and care it truly needed.
To a lot of you, the prospect of a four-hour tale of a woman claiming to be addicted to sex recounting her life for a stranger may not sound like the best time at the movies. I can already guess that your brainwaves are firing off right now, forcing you to wonder if I have gone completely off the deep end. The truth is that I have been a fan of von Trier for quite sometime and curiosity drove my decision to check out this big, sex saga. Sure, it may not sound like the average blockbuster. But von Trier is able to capture a captivating story filled with great performances and even greater drama. Von Trier decided to chop his epic story in half, with both volumes available now to rent on ITunes. (Although, as of right now, Volume II is a lot more expensive.) I don't know how this tale is going to end, but I have to say that it is off to a great start.
The film opens with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding a badly beaten woman in the middle of a road. He assists her into his home, tends to her bruises and fixes her a meal. The entire time, she confesses to how bad of person she has been. The girl's name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and she begins to tell Seligman about her spiral into sexual addiction. We learn it started at a very young age, and that her parents may not have done the best job raising her, which always leads to the children being more influenced by their friends than their family. We learn Joe had very possessive friends and soon enough, she was hooked on sexual addiction. We learn how Joe's life forced her to be completely emotionless and how that made her become so detached from social norms and utterly narcissistic in her ways. The movie features a fantastic glimpse into the life of someone addicted to sex. Everything is handled maturely, but at the same time, von Trier crafts a well-told and entertaining story from the subject.
What shocked me about "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" was how funny it was. There are bits of humor sprinkled within the first half hour that both pleased and surprised me. Lars von Trier has never really been remotely funny before, so this new change of pace was refreshing. The humor never feels out-of-place, it never feels forced, the film never feels like it wants to be something its not. Everything is handled so delicately that I wanted to stand up and applaud. I don't know if I can think of another movie that balanced sex, faith, love, family, relationships, need and desire in such mature terms and still was able to etch smiles on its audience. But Lars von Trier was able to accomplish that, and make it look so easy.
The film is littered with great performances. The work by both Skarsgard and Gainsbourg is the glue to the entire movie, and they have wonderful chemistry together. As the film is told mainly in flashbacks, we have a host of actors coming in and out, but each one leaving a swift mark. Christian Slater and Connie Neilsen play Joe's parents, and they both do fine work. Shia LaBeouf has a rather meaty role as Jerome, the only man who has stung Joe with love. His work here is calculated well and he gives one of the best performances of his career. Uma Thurman has one big scene, and is a dozy. I won't reveal what it entails, but Thurman absolutely nails it, and creates some of the most unsettling imagery in the whole film. Stacy Martin plays young Joe in many of the characters flashbacks, and so far, Martin's presence has been a tour-de-force. What she is asked to do onscreen isn't easy and automatically earns my respect for taking this project seriously and creating something awesome out of it. Watch out for Miss Martin in the future, ladies and gentlemen.
If I have one major problem its with some of Lars von Trier's style ideas. Like I said above, Lars von Trier has many stylish fetishes he puts on the screen every time, and mostly they are good. Sometimes, he is able to speak volumes about a subject without ever using spoken language. In "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" he smacks his metaphors over your head with a sledgehammer. Usually, von Trier is able to make his metaphors subtle and unnoticeable, here they are underlined in red and circled twice. Von Trier has always been a clever filmmaker and I was hoping for some of that again, I am not sure why he decided to make the decisions he did this time out. But that's really the big thing that nagged me throughout the film.
If you are expecting a big sex marathon in this movie, look elsewhere. This movie is about an adult idea nurtured with care and discussed seriously. It is guided by a magnificent array of performances, and the best thing I can say is that I can't wait to see how this ends. I think you'll be surprised by what you see, if you're daring enough to sit down and watch "Nymphomaniac: Volume I." Its incredibly ambitious, and that ambition pays off with flying colors. I will get to the final volume sometime in the near future. Right now, I am humbled to say "so far, so good."
FINAL GRADE: A-