Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
After picking up groceries from a nearby store, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) comes across a woman, bruised and bloody from what appears to be a beating, whose body is sprawled across a cobblestone path. He attempts to wake her and although she is conscious, he tells her that he will call an ambulance. The woman insists he does not. Seligman remains concerned so he takes her to his home so she can recuperate.
The woman tells the man that her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). When asked about her life, she casually begins to talk about the moment in time when she, as a little girl, discovered the pleasure that lies between her legs.
Written and directed by Lars von Trier, “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” has a strange calm about it despite having a protagonist with an unquenchable need for sex right at the center. Movies with a lesser vision and control tend to cheapen the subject but this picture commands a high level of elegance and grace. Because the approach is serious, we are piqued by the woman—her history, the way she thinks, and the manner in which she perceives herself—rather than judging and dismissing her right away.
A series of scenes like two teenage girls (Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Joe, and Sophie Kennedy Clark) having a contest on who can have sex with more men while aboard a train is handled with maturity, a pinch of humor, and sadness. We observe a pattern: Joe’s hesitance to flirt with complete strangers, Joe’s competitive nature taking over, the sexual act, and then Joe’s feelings of shame and empowerment. The girls regather. The pattern continues until they meet a man in first class who is on his way to see his wife.
Many of the situations, in my opinion, are not meant to be titillating. After all, though the majority of the picture consists of recollections, it always goes back to the older Joe who seems very unhappy, almost angry at herself for giving away too much of what she ought to have valued more. There are even a few lines which suggest that she thinks she is a bad person. But, I must admit, several times I was excited by the young Joe, wonderfully played by Martin with utmost solemnity and natural beauty, enjoying a man—sometimes a total of seven or eight men in one night—being inside her. However, I am not suggesting that the film is any way pornographic.
Yes, we see male and female genitals both in flaccid and erect states but there is a dignified story behind these images. To tackle the subject of nymphomania without showing the tools for sex or certain erogenous zones would have taken away an air of reality on some level. Not once do we feel that the writer-director is taking advantage of his actors. On the contrary, they are pushed to deliver good performances. For instance, I have never considered Shia LaBeouf, who plays one of Joe’s lovers, of really having a chance of becoming a “serious” performer. To my surprise, I enjoyed his interpretation of the character even though I was not completely convinced by his accent. To me, the magic is always in the eyes and LaBeouf has got it down.
“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” would not nearly have been so electric if Uma Thurman’s one scene had been excluded. She plays a scorned woman who learns that her husband is moving in with another younger belle. Her strategy: to follow her spouse to the whore’s abode—with her three young sons. The direction commands a masterclass confidence because the scene is allowed to escalate in tone and build emotional momentum to the point where it is very uncomfortable—reflected by the increasingly manic movement of the camera as well as characters who do not quite know how to respond to the livid wife.