[Note: This review is of a censored, abridged version of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I. Director Lars Von Trier gave this version his approval, but did not create this cut.]
Lars Von Trier clearly delights in messing with his audience. His films are abrasive, but they carry an arthouse sheen and a thoughtfulness that makes them more than pretentious trolling. But just because his movies aren’t empty-headed, that doesn’t mean they’re immune from being incredibly dumb. Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 swerves wildly from a story that demands deep consideration about the relationship between lust and love, and an absurd comedy where characters try to top each other with hilariously idiotic dialogue. It appears that Von Trier wants to have his cake and fuck it too, but with the exception of one terrific scene, the absurdity almost always derails the tenderness.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found beaten in an alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), and he takes her to his sad, dingy apartment to heal up. While she convalesces, she says she’s “a bad human being”, and to prove it to the kindly, nerdy Seligman, she launches into a long story about her life as a nymphomaniac. Vol. I takes us through five chapters: “The Complete Angler”, “Jerome”, “Mrs. H”, “Delirium”, and “The Little Organ School”. Each story shows how the young Joe (Stacy Martin) was willing to ruin lives in order to feed her sexual urges, but also wrestled with being in love with the man to whom she gave her virginity, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf).
To his credit, Von Trier lays out very early the kind of whiplash he plans to give us. The film opens with ambient noise, fades in on the alley, and slowly gazes over the setting. Then he pulls the camera back to show Joe unconscious in the alley, and hard rock comes booming in, obliterating the quiet, pensive tone that had come before. This implies the conflict of love and lust that will be present in Joe’s story, but also prepares us for the ridiculousness of what’s to come.
Von Trier has a specific kind of humor, but it’s tough to get a handle on it. Joe tells her story in a flat, distant tone, and so when she says “I discovered my cunt as a 2-year-old” followed shortly thereafter by defending her sexual behavior as “I’ve always demanded more from the sunset,” it’s difficult to keep a straight face. It becomes nearly impossible as we witness Joe’s explicit sexual behavior with Seligman butting in to compare it to fly-fishing.
Eventually, I began eagerly awaiting Seligman’s idiotic metaphors because they were either laughably overbearing or painfully forced. Because Seligman happens to have a fishing fly on the wall (it should be noted this is the only object on the wall, so it looks like it was placed there specifically so it could be referenced), he’s able to say, “It’s called a nymph. It will tie in with your story of nymphomania” (shockingly, this is not his worst line). The room is also filled with other conversation starters like a portrait bearing the words “Mrs. H” at the bottom and a tape player with organ music on it. In retrospect, I wish there had been other objects so Seligman could helpfully provide other prompts and interjections. “That’s a tube of K.Y. Jelly. It should be familiar to someone who has had so much anal sex.”
This bizarre comedy is what Nymphomaniac: Vol. I does best, and Von Trier struggles any time he gets away from this tone. He’s in his element when going over the top, and even when Seligman isn’t saying ridiculous things, the movie can still reach heightened levels that aren’t unintentionally comic. Joe competing with her friend B. (Sophie Kennedy Clark) over who can have sex with the most strangers on a train to win a bag of “chocolate sweeties” is as preposterous as their fuck club, “Mea Vulva, Mea Maxima Vulva”, a name they and their fellow nymphomaniacs chant like they’re in a cult. This is the “hard rock” side of the movie, and it’s entertaining if not always illuminating.
But when Von Trier has to move for real, human emotion, the movie grinds to a halt. Perhaps he feels a kinship with Joe in that they both understand lust better than love, but we’re still saddled with dull scenes between Joe and her father (Christian Slater) talking about trees. The Freudian subtext of their relationship is intriguing (Joe hates her mother), but never developed in a meaningful way despite the strength of the performances.
The only time when the emotional and comic blend together in a powerful, moving scene is in “Chapter Three: Mrs. H” when a jilted wife and mother (Uma Thurman giving a powerhouse performance) comes with kids in tow to Joe’s apartment to confront the homewrecker and the husband that has just walked out on his family. The scene perfectly mixes the absurdly comic (at one point, Mrs. H politely asks Joe if the children can see “the whoring bed”) and the earnestly sorrowful. This is what Joe means about being “a bad human being” because she not only lied to the husband about loving him, but also carelessly destroyed a family in the process. It’s where the devoted love of a wife smashes up against the selfish lust of a mistress.
Von Trier is almost always taking us to the polar opposites, and it’s clear that he’ll probably never reconcile love and lust considering the cynical way present-day Joe talks about love. Instead, we’re mostly in a world of lust, and while that’s appropriate for a movie called “Nymphomaniac”, the actual sex can also become exhausting and surprisingly dull. There’s plenty of room for Von Trier to do exciting things like shoot a triptych of sex scenes and compare it to a musical composition, and changing the shooting style depending on the setting. However, a large amount of time is spent on the sex scenes, which consist largely of a topless Martin bouncing up and down, sweating, and occasionally moaning. There’s no need to be titillating, but the redundancy makes these scenes increasingly tedious. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that the increasing boredom of the picture is meant to mirror Joe’s diminishing sexual sensation, but as the triptych scene shows us, the young Joe still seems to appreciate sex depending on the partner.
There’s a thoughtfulness lurking around the movie, but it’s either drowned out by the moans or smothered by the silence. Von Trier lives in the extremes, and while his subject matter lends itself to extreme measures, the extremity of the comedy outmatches the extremity of any real emotion; emotions that Von Trier truly seems to want. But eventually even Seligman has to point out a moment in Joe’s story that breaks his emotional investment. She replies, “How do you get the most of my story: by believing in it or by not believing in it?” In the case of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, not believing in it provides a more pleasurable experience.