Few filmmakers are more button-pushing, divisive, and controversial than Lars von Trier, the enfant terrible behind Breaking the Waves, Dogville, and Antichrist. If you asked a cinephile, which international auteur was most likely to deliver a 4-hour opus on sex that featured non-simulated copulation (although reportedly by sex doubles and not the leads) and a bizarrely-assembled cast that included Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Christian Slater, there would be only one answer. And so Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 comes to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival as a special, exclusive screening with certain expectations. Does it live up to his most challenging work or just serve as titillation for the arthouse scene? Can I get back to you?
The fact is that this version of Nymphomaniac feels somewhat incomplete. This is not Kill Bill or even Che, two “split experiences” in which the first volume also felt thematically and narratively complete on their own. Almost every strength or flaw of the first volume of Nymphomaniac could be diminished or corrected in the second volume. This is a very challenging, original, and often hilarious piece of work that fans of LvT’s really must see but I’m also not sure yet what to make of it as an entire work of art. If you watched just the first half of Melancholia, it would be interesting but not exactly satisfying. I feel similarly about only seeing the first half of Nymphomaniac (and the “scenes from vol. 2” during the closing credits only made me more frustrated that I couldn’t finish the experience right then and there.)
Immediately, von Trier is playing with your expectations of his highly-buzzed art porn as he opens with shots of snow melting off roofs and clanging against garbage cans. It is anti-sexual in its metal cacophony. There’s nothing human about it. Incredibly slow, von Trier’s Melancholia cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro (who does remarkable work throughout the film) pans to a beaten woman on the ground named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She is found by a kind gentleman named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) but refuses to be taken to the hospital. Seligman brings her to his modest apartment, nurses her, and listens to the story of her life: The saga of a nymphomaniac.
The first volume is divided into five chapters, all of which focus on one section of Joe’s life and often compare her journey to something remarkably mundane. The first is inspired by noticing a fishing lure on Seligman’s wall. Called “The Compleat Angler,” it allows a bit of background into Joe’s exploration of sexuality in childhood (opening with the line “I discovered my c**t as a 2-year-old”) before moving quickly into a parallel between trolling for men and using fly fishing to find salmon in a stream. Throughout Nymphomaniac, von Trier parallels topics one would often consider incredibly boring with that often designed to titillate. If one argues that Nymphomaniac is little more than high-concept porn, I’d like them to point me to a porn with as much discussion of cake forks. Von Trier, with a wink in his eye and sense of humor that’s been missing from his work for years, is playing with the viewer. You want to see a sexy movie? Well, we’re going to talk about fly fishing first.
Narratively, Nymphomaniac is relatively straightforward and simple. It’s about a girl (played in her youth by Stacy Martin) who goes from interested in sex and her body’s response to its pleasure to being numbed by it. After a rough encounter where she loses her virginity to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), Joe heads off into a standard exploration of sex for most young people but she never returns to love as so many do after they “sow their oats.” As her friends find relationships, she burns through men at a record pace, comparing her vagina to an automatic door at a store; opening for whomever steps in front of it. Two men seem to challenge her numbness – the love she has for her father (Christian Slater) and the return of a now-elegant Jerôme.
What’s most remarkable to me about Nymphomaniac is the complete lack of judgment of its protagonist by the film’s creator. In fact, Joe is constantly telling Seligman that she’s done bad things and her companion corrects her. Was she a home-wrecker or could her dalliance with a married man on a train actually have strengthened that gentleman’s union? Either answer is possible in this film’s world. Nymphomaniac, at least the first volume, isn’t nearly as dark as you’d expect from the man who gave us Antichrist. It is often playful, strange, and unexpected. And it is defiant in its refusal to allow you to judge Joe. Is she good or bad? Stop asking the question.
Thematically, there’s so much going in volume one that I’m not sure the film can be fully unpacked until we see the second half. Von Trier’s dialogue here as smart as ever (“Love is just lust with jealousy added”) and there’s an energy to the plotting and pacing that his more lugubrious films of late have been missing. It’s also often hilarious, especially in an amazing scene with Uma Thurman, which should turn “whoring bed” into the “chaos reigns” of 2014, and a bit in which die-rolling determines Joe’s responses to potential beaus. This is a FAST two hours, even though some of the scenes of conversation feel purposefully tedious. I’ll admit to wanting a bit more of an emotional connection, but that’s hard to pull off in a film about a woman who is becoming increasingly numb to the world around her.
Will Joe descend deeper into darkness or will she find love among the random acts of fornication? I don’t know. I’m not sure where Nymphomaniac is going from here. I do know that it is likely to match the energy, filmmaking skill, and remarkable ambition of the first volume. Will the themes set up here be fulfilled in volume two or will they fall flat? Like some of the gentlemen in Joe’s life who can’t wait to get back to see her, I’m counting the days until the next date.