I didn’t discover Lars von Trier until the tender age of twenty-two years old, and like so many others, it was all thanks to his shocking and highly controversial film Antichrist. In the midst of my growing cinematic knowledge, I became intrigued with von Trier’s body of work. Although I didn’t seem to have the stomach for the aforementioned film, I was curious and looked into his previous directorial efforts, like Manderlay and Dogville instead. Two years later, I got myself into the theatre and watched my very first von Trier film on the big screen, Melancholia. Even though my expectations for the film differed from the moment the film started, I knew I was experiencing something unique; a visceral film with hints of philosophical rants and raves, abstract imaging and a certain level of pretentiousness; unbeknownst to me at the time, the very ingredients to any good von Trier film. Fast forward another two years, and von Trier delivers his banned and highly provocative sexual epic; an oeuvre of bold claims, passionate sexual stylistics and raw sex, in two parts no less, that is not for the faint of heart.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I is a work of fine erotic art by an artist you cannot help but despise. Since his ‘persona non grata’ status from the Cannes film festival, von Trier has embraced his newest label as his work continues to be hardened, tough to swallow cinematic narratives, and Nymphomaniac: Volume I is no different. He may be coy, deceptive, arrogant, and manipulative, but von Trier’s work is undeniably passionate, wrought, and full of daring visual feats and narrative brevity.
The story begins, ends, and follows Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) von Trier’s faithful muse in what he has called to described his Depression Trilogy, being followed only by Antichrist and Melancholia. Like the two previous entries in his Depression Trilogy, our female protagonist is on a journey of transcendence. But unlike the two previous entries which force the protagonist through a journey of self discovery resulting from a fateful tragedy that has plagued their lives, Joe’s harsh adversities are brought on to her by herself, or rather as von Trier repeatedly puts it, by the strongest human force we may ever experience–our sexuality. The idea of the defined version of nymphomania is never mentioned in volume I, and rightly so, because volume one does not deal with von Trier’s obsession with rectifying political correctness. Instead, volume I serves as a diabolically sinister exploration of one young girl’s sexual identity. Lars von Trier may very well be the face of cinematic hypocrisy, usually contradicting himself, but in this film von Trier dabbles in various religions, just like throughout his own life. Catholicism, the Protestantism, and atheism, it seems that the only aspect of each religion that interests this director extraordinaire is the idea of sin. In any of his films, the concept of sin survives well beyond any religion, and volume I attests to the sins of a public few, and a sheltered many.
We first find Joe (Gainsbourg) laying on the floor, in a position similar to Jesus Christ on the cross. Luckily for her, she is seen by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes her into his home, offering her tea and a patient ear to hear how and why she ended up on the floor of an alleyway all battered and bruised. She explains that the way she got there, begins the moment she turned two, a place in Joe’s life where she discovered a fascination with her genitalia. An interesting observation to make clear is that, throughout the film, Joe seems to come from normal parents who suffer from some of the most common martial issues any couple could face; isolation, loneliness, falling out of love, etc. Her father (Christian Slater) and mother (Connie Neilson) do not seem to share much together, other than a daughter and a home. Joe and her father spend hours upon hours walking through nature, looking for their ‘soul tree’ and passing through the history of nature and the importance of identity. Joe’s childhood is hypnotic and lucid, almost directly reflecting against the stark and bold future of her teenage years and callous adulthood. Throughout her youth and scenes with her father, we are sent through a dream; a dream of a little girl searching through innocence and righteousness, only finding a desire for pleasure and the orgasm.
Once she reaches the age of fifteen, Joe knows that she is ready to lose her virginity and wants Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) to take it. She explains that she knew that she wanted him to be her first based on his hands; hands that were strong, experienced and dirty. Joe never is or becomes fascinated with the simple and explained notions of attraction; her desires are to be picked up, dumped, and used over and over again. Joe finds no pleasure in love. This notion alone, told throughout her story and the beginnings of her nymphomania told to Seligman (Skarsgård), is something he finds troubling to understand. This is especially so as much of his understanding of life is reflected upon through his experiences with literature, music, film, fly-fishing, and religion where love reigns supreme. Throughout Joe’s story, Seligman finds coincidences that are deep rooted in Satanism, Bach, and Catholicism, yet, Joe explains that no matter how fabricated or unrealistic her story can be, it is the truth, and uses her experiences to prove it. No matter how many times Seligman digresses the story, Joe always has an answer for him, found in her naked and unabashed life.
When I mentioned above that Nymphomaniac: Volume I is surely not for the faint of heart, I reinforce this warning not for its ruthless violence, perverse lens, nor for the disgust of our protagonist’s venture into her filthy, dirty lust. The film is ruthless and wholly disturbing for the images, scenarios, and believability of people’s cowardly and unexplainable behaviour when forced into a corner. In one of the most powerful scenes, not only in this volume, but also the next, Joe is shown juggling and scheduling various men into one night who come over and fulfill her sexual needs, from seven at night, until two in the morning. In between this time, we are personally introduced to two men; F (Nicholas Bro) an overweight man who provides Joe with an absent want of sexual affection, attention, and gentleness, and G (Christian Gade Bjerrum) a man Joe describes as being cat-like and having sex as if he was mating. Joe also finds time to juggle Mr. H (Hugo Speer) who so happens to leave his wife for a life with Joe. What ensues is a wholly ridiculous yet completely unforgettable scene involving Mr. H’s wife, Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), who follows her soon-to-be ex-husband to the house of his lover with their children. Awkwardly and unwelcome, she pushes her way through the door and shows the children their father’s favourite place, or, as she puts it, “the whoring bed. After all, they also have a stake in this event.” The ridiculousness of this scene and the impact it has on Joe brings to vivid life the wicked and morbid mind of its stunted and disturbed director.
Recently, I have found that one of my biggest issues when it comes to films centred around people who are unquestionably considered nymphomaniacs, is that I find myself quickly comparing it to Steve McQueen’s timeless, modern classic Shame. Although we get a taste of young Joe (Stacy Martin) maneuvering her way out of the shadows of neurotic desires and unconventional pleasures, she still tries to exist normally in her workplace amongst people who sin in their own special way. This perspective never quite reaches the lows of Fassbender’s tormented Brandon in Shame, but Young Joe truly shows a female side to this addiction.
Perhaps, the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from Lars von Trier, an artist who is known for delivering such philosophical works of people facing internal damnation through the power of the visual. Nymphomaniac: Volume I is quite possibly von Trier’s most commercial work to date. But, as von Trier addresses many times within the film through Joe’s inability to find sensitivity in the world and throughout many of the ‘normal’ and ‘average’ instances of her life, she finds blindness and recognizes that for herself, that the idea of love never darkens situations but distorts them instead.
Although the film was never intended to be a two-part sexual anthology, von Trier’s work was cut into two films, leaving us hanging by a string by its last frames. The film ends without a ‘happy ending’, and allows audiences to anticipate what comes next in the life of Joe, leaving us at the mercy of a master filmmaker anticipating what is promised to be a truly unforgettable and remarkable climax.
Night Film Reviews: 7 Out of 10 Stars.
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