Nymphomaniac: Volumes 1 & 2
Written and Directed by Lars Von Trier
The muscular tube leading from the external genitals to the cervix of the uterus in women and most female mammals, this is the definition of a vagina. In Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, a movie told in 2 separate volumes is the story of not only male and female anatomy, but about an intricate, almost scientific, yet poetic look at that act of sex itself.
When one thinks of sex, the words passion, love, arousal and pleasure come to mind, but what is displayed in this movie is none of the above or faintly if at all. Von Trier takes the topic of sex and puts his avant-garde twist on it. Taking away all inclinations of traditional movies, he implies an almost visceral, instinctual way of using the camera and telling his story.
There has been much consternation and commotion regarding the nature of this movie, many people believed that it was simply Von Trier gratuitously trying to satisfy his own need for telling a story full of nudity and sexual acts, but I believe there is much more to the story at hand than what has been represented outwardly in the movie and promotional material. His movie inspired provocation and enticed viewers into wanting to know what in the world this movie was all about and there are not many directors out there who can illicit that response nowadays. We live in a sex crazed culture and to get people writhing in their chairs at the sight or talk of sex is unseen.
Nymphomaniac is about a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is literally like the name of the movie, a sex addict. She lies beaten in an alley and a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarskgard) finds her and she refuses help, but she obliges to go back to his place where he takes care of her and nurses her back to health. I don’t know many people who would go back willingly to a stranger’s home, sleep comfortably in their bed, but therein is the story of Joe’s personality she is different from most people and is unafraid of the scary world out there because truly she believes she is one of the bad guys.
As she sips her tea, bruised and helpless looking, she tells Seligman that is the most ridiculous name she has ever heard. He laughs shyly, coyly; he sees the good in Joe and doesn’t believe she is this bad person she thinks she is in her heart. She looks around the room and starts to notice objects; she sees a fishing lure and starts to tell Seligman how it reminds her of a story. From there the story begins and slowly, but surely the story of Joe unravels in front of Seligman’s eyes. The story itself is told in chapters emanating from the different objects she correlates with her life.
He is a man unlike her, not rebellious in nature, in fact he lives like a monk in an almost bare apartment, and he thinks philosophically and talks to her like a student. As she relates everything in his room, from the lure, to a tape recorder to an engraving on a painting to some sexual act in her life, he correlates her sexual perversions to Fibonacci numbers, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music and religious iconography.
Throughout the film, we rarely see Seligman even react to her stories of illicit sex and only once do we see him really pop out of his intellectual comfort zone as we see him imagining Joe as a school girl using rulers and protractors in a sexual way.
The film focuses entirely on her sexual journey, from losing her virginity to understanding how to use her female parts for power, to sadomasochism and bondage for pleasure, to completely losing feeling of her nether regions from constant sex.
We learn about her family, her relationship with her father (Christian Slater), who teaches her to appreciate nature, and her mother who is distant and cold (Connie Nielsen). The countless men she has given sex to, almost as a favor to them, pitying them in one sense as well, as if giving men pleasure is a kind act she pays forward to not only herself, but to the world. At one point, even Seligman suggests that perhaps by her giving man fellatio on a train, then maybe she helped him go home and have sex with his wife and have a baby. Seligman throughout the film is on a constant, obsessive note of trying to convince Joe that she is not an evil human being.
The majority of Volume 1 is focused on the young Joe (Stacy Martin) and her odd relationship with Jerome (Shia LeBouf), the only man she seems to have ever loved or felt anything other just sexual satisfaction. Volume 2 shows us the adult Joe and where her life has gone, the repercussions of the way she behaved in the first part begin to take place and how she ultimately ended up beaten in an alley.
Von Trier uses a lot of hand held shots throughout the film, at times it feels as if we are almost voyeurs watching a homemade sex video. The film sometimes looks grainy and the camera is shaky, for example, during the pedophile scene, but that adds to the essence of what the movie is intended to be, a realistic vantage point of someone deep in the trenches of sexual addiction.
The two actresses who play Joe, Gainsbourg and Martin did a great job at portraying such a complex and different type of character. Rarely do we see actresses, giving up their bodies freely to be seen by the world with such ease, which had to take some nerve to do.
LeBouf did a decent job, his accent was not perfected well, which took away some of his credibility and he gave what appeared to be a pretentious performance. At this point, it is almost typical fashion of him. Yes, he looks hot in this movie, but that’s about it. This could have been the movie where he let his true artistic self shine; instead it was dim and hollow.
Skarskgard also gave a noteworthy performance, but I expected no less from a caliber of actor as him. He made the character seem to have more sides than the story gave him, which was a smart man who knew about every topic under the sun, but the act of sex itself.
Jamie Bell as K stood out to me; I liked how he portrayed the S&M dominator with such ruthlessness and lack of feeling for what he did to the women. Giving them pleasure through pain, although we know nothing else about this character, despite that fact he gave a convincing performance that stood out from a sea of characters in this film.
Uma Thurman also appears very briefly as Mrs. H and she delivered an odd and profound role in the film. Her whole scene made me feel awkward more than anything else I saw in this movie. Her character expressed feelings more than any other, which perhaps that’s why it stood out considering young Joe is almost affectless and is never unnerved by anything.
The movie could have been told in one concise, tightly built story, instead of wasting a lot of time on the theme of nature and maybe cutting down on some of the literal images that were presented. I feel like I could give tons of criticisms on this film, but I am viewing it from an avant-garde type of movie perspective.
If I sat here and thought about character development, narrative, etc, then it would be considered a fail, but if I remove those from my process and look at it for what it is, then I can say I enjoyed the movie. It was an aesthetically pleasing, different type of movie that isn’t for everyone. I would say if you enjoy movies that push the envelope with risqué themes, then you will enjoy this, but if you hate artsy type flicks that do not have a strong narrative, then this is not your movie.
I liked it because it felt like I was dissecting a poem, one of those really long, book type poems, where you go line by line and see a deeper meaning then what is presented on the surface. One of my favorite scenes was the part about how Bach’s polyphonic work is related to Joe’s lovers and how the two are juxtaposed against each other. Not only was it poetic in style, it also had a musical lyricism to it, that is a style and feeling different from any movie out there right now.
Overall, as I mentioned above, if you have the time, the energy, the stamina, no pun intended, then you may want to give this movie a chance. Also keep in mind, if you are going to watch this with someone, you may want to prep them and give them a disclaimer, this movie definitely isn’t your Saturday date night rom-com movie.