Review by Ken Burke Nymphomaniac: Volume I
A woman narrates what she considers her “sinful” life of constant sex, focusing on specific incidences in her constant quest for pleasure at any cost; more to come.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
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The usual Spoiler Alert above takes on a slightly different purpose with Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I because while some of you may want to wait to read this detailed review—with all of its various plot revelations—after you see the film for yourself (it’s opening this weekend in my San Francisco area, maybe your home zone as well) for others this elaborated description here may be all you can get until DVD availability (although you can look into On Demand cable/satellite/etc. options now, that is, if your significant other will tolerate you watching content as explicit as this; if so, see the film’s official site noted far below to get information on how to connect for video viewing as well as get a schedule about where it—and Volume II—will be rolling out across the U.S. in theaters over the next couple of months) because even though this presentation is being released as Unrated it would definitely get an NC-17 and likely won’t be advertised nor playing in a lot of theaters simply because of its constant, un-simulated sex scenes (through digital compositing, genital copulation between porno performers was superimposed upon the bodies of the advertised actors—I guess you could say that “No Mainstream Actors Were Pornoed During the Production of this Film”—allowing you to see real sex, just not between the people whose faces you see on screen), therefore, if you want to get a taste (so to speak—look, its going to be very “hard” to keep writing about von Trier’s latest without making sexual innuendoes, so either bail out now or “come” along with me; for the record, Google overlords, I realize that your refusal of advertising on this site because of your robotic concerns over preserving such income for only “family-friendly” BlogSpots will be further supported by my even reviewing this film, so, what the hell, f**k you and on we go on behalf of art [Alejandro Jodorowsky would be proud of me; we’ll get to his indiscretions with his attempted adaptation of Dune in my next posting) of Nymphomaniac: Volume I (Volume II arrives April 4, again accompanied by my review at roughly the time of release) please read on if you don’t mind possibly being offended by my explorations of this somewhat unconventional film (although the door to such explicitness intended for a general adult audience has already been opened [along with a good many orifices—I told you these junior-high-level-comments are hard to resist with such content, or at least with this junior-high-minded-writer] by a good number of films including Blue Is the Warmest Color [Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013; review in our November 21, 2013 posting], which we’ll see next year if it finally garners an Oscar consideration for Best Foreign Language Film when its release dates are no longer an issue with Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rules, with no conflict from Nymphomaniac given that the 2 parts of von Trier’s film [which add up to 4 hours; a 5 ½-hour director’s cut version will be released sometime in 2014] are in English [to help Americans not be distracted by subtitles while drooling over the ongoing intercourse scenes], so we’ll also see if the Academy is willing to consider either half of Nymphomaniac’s assault on conventionality for the full realm of awards next year [nothing but Foreign Language honors await Blue Is the Warmest Color because it could have been nominated in other categories this year but wasn't, possibly because of confusion on the part of the voters]).
As we first enter Nymphomania: Volume I (from here on out I’ll let my choice of words “so to speak” for themselves, as you’ve already been excessively forewarned about the potential nastiness of both the film and your erstwhile critic) we get the title on a black screen, followed by a discomfortingly-long lack of image (with some muffled audio on the soundtrack), finally moving to shots of brick walls in an alley on a dark, snowy night. All of this is a buildup to a wide shot of an injured woman (see the photo accompanying the paragraph above), soon discovered by an older man on his way home from dinner (punctuated by a blast of rock music, as von Trier is out—as usual—to disorient and unnerve his audience, in what has been identified as the last episode in his “Depression Trilogy” after Antichrist [2009, about a child’s death and the parents’ grief which descends into genital mutilation and murder] and Melancholia [2011, about a topic as simple as the end of the world as another planet comes crashing into us, the subject of the first-ever Two Guys review in our December 12, 2011 posting and still championed by me as the best film released that year [sorry, The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius); I enjoyed your version of Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952) but not as much as I appreciated Kirsten Dunst’s quiet acceptance of eternal termination]). The man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), takes the woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg; also in Antichrist and Melancholia so you’re not mistaken if you find her to be a von Trier regular, as is Skarsgård having been in what I consider the unofficial collection of the director's previous masterpieces, Breaking the Waves , Dancer in the Dark , Dogville , and Melancholia—with acknowledgement that I haven’t seen his entire output so there may be others equally worthy of such praise not listed here, just as some might take exception with putting the brutal Dogville on this list but I’ve been haunted by it ever since I saw it at the Sundance Festival in 2004) home to treat her bleeding and bruises, only to have her completely reject any visit to a doctor or report to the police, presenting herself as alternately self-condemned as a sinner (a category that he has little use for and is surprised that she does, given that neither of them profess religious beliefs) yet at times defensive about her choices and actions. As Volume I unfolds, though, she willingly tells him her story which he hears with rapt attention (while her dirty clothes are in the washer and she does accept some pajamas and hot tea from him) but more from an attitude of intellectual curiosity rather than voyeuristic delight (with no indication, so far at least, that her tales are in any way intended as a prelude to sex between the two of them).
Joe tells Seligman that she discovered her clit (I’m still trying to keep my own language marginally-acceptable for public discourse but when words and phrases come directly from the film I won’t censor them) at age 2, then has spent the rest of her life pleasuring it by any means (or man; she seems to have not cared to explore Blue Is the Warmest Color same-sex-territory—at least not yet) available, beginning with the “turtle game” suggested by her equally-horny-friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark as a teenager, Sofie Kasten as a 7-year-old [with Maja Arsovic as the 7-year Joe]), where the girls poured water on Joe’s bathroom floor, then scooted around on it belly-down to their delight and the displeasure of Joe’s mother (Connie Nielsen), although her father (Christian Slater) seemed amused by his daughter’s game but he clearly adored her, taking her on walks in the woods to show her the beauties of nature (as an adult she develops a more darkly philosophical understanding of those same trees—especially the ash—that he so admired: “It’s actually the souls of the trees that we’re seeing in winter. In summer everything is green and idyllic but in the winter, the branches and the trunks all stand out. Just look at how crooked they all are. The branches have to carry all the leaves to the sunlight. That’s one long struggle for survival.”) while her mother remained distant, finally leaving her husband, almost dismissing his existence.
While the bulk of the film details specific incidents in Joe’s life of almost-continuous sexual encounters leading to gratification she’s clear even in her opening revelations to Seligman that the “mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins” (to borrow a line from Jean Renoir’s superb tale of lies and illusions, Rules of the Game ) is all she’s interested in, an attitude shared in her young womanhood by B (shown in the photo here) and her other female friends who took the oath of “Mea Vulva, Mea Maxima Vulva” until the ultimate shock from B when she actually finds romance with one of her lovers. Joe refuses such divergence from her “orthodox faith,” more determined than ever—as related in chapters 3-5 of this first volume of her testimony to be explored momentarily (although I’m trying to prolong your tension as long as possible, unlike Joe who gets quickly to her purpose)—to just indulge her immediate-pleasure-needs, which evolve over the years from hanging as long as she can from the gym ceiling with the rope grasped solidly between her upper thighs as a youngster to seducing just about any male within her vicinity from the time she was 15 and willingly gave it away to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), a local biker-boy quite ready to oblige her needs (Joe: “If I asked you to take my virginity, would that be a problem?” Jerôme: “No, I don’t see a problem.”), a character that we’ll soon see more of (although that first encounter wasn’t as wonderful as she’d assumed because before ejaculating he gave her 3 vaginal thrusts [referred to by her as the specific motion of “humping,” which both my wife, Nina (who enjoyed the film, as did I, so please keep that in mind before deciding that my ramblings about Nymphomania: Volume I are just the limp secretions of an old pervert—although that’s not out of the realm of possibility either), and I agreed is a word that connotes more the entire sex act to us rather than just individual pelvic pushes but each culture sees it a bit differently I guess)] before turning her over for his final 5 rams into her rear [seemingly anal, not rear-entry-vaginal], helping us understand why that experience actually put her off sex for awhile—until she decided she was ready for more). So, instead of beating around the bush any further, let’s explore what von Trier offers us of Joe’s younger life in these first chapters of a woman’s self-proclaimed “despicable” autobiography.
“Chapter 1 The Compleat Angler” Each of these chapters in the film carries its own title so I’ll repeat them here for clarity, with this first one especially set up to show parallels between Joe’s teenage trolling for men on a train ride with B compared to Seligman’s descriptions of how to catch fish as presented in Izaac Walton’s famous 1653 book, with the same title as this chapter. In the case of Joe (played in all of these teenage and young adult flashbacks by the marvelous Stacy Martin, on the right in this photo) and B, the prize was simply a bag of candy for whichever one of them was able to snag the most hookups on a train ride one night when they were both dressed in their best “Come fuck me now” skimpy, seductive outfits. Although it didn’t take much encouragement to get eager young men to show them where the lavatories were located, B soon had a 10 to 6 advantage as the train neared their destination. However, triumph-opportunity-to-climax-the-night presented itself after a middle-aged man essentially chased them out of the first-class compartment that they’d barged into with him, as B offered Joe a 5-point winning advantage if she could turn this unwilling trick. Joe got him into a conversation in which he revealed that he and his wife had been trying desperately to get pregnant, with the wife tracking her cycles to know that she was in peak condition for welcoming his sperm so he was racing home to be with her that night (accordingly, he hadn’t been denying the girls previously on any moral grounds, just the need to preserve his wad for longer-lasting-purposes), steadfastly refusing to give in to Joe’s inviting temptations. However, a combination of persistence and insistence on her part to open his fly for a blow job proved more than he could resist, so Joe got the candy to help cleanse her palette while the man on the train (Clayton Nemrow) likely had a lot of ‘splainin’ to do later that night to his wife as to why his well had run dry, a good example of what compels Joe to consistently present herself to Seligman as a ruined, ruinous person, willing to undermine anyone for her instant (quickly forgotten) gratification.
“Chapter 2 Jerôme” However, Joe almost meets her match in her next recounted episode as she’s a bit older, looking to join the work force although her self-preoccupation while in school has left her with little knowledge or skills with which to begin a career (except the obvious one, but for reasons not [yet ?] articulated she chooses to stay away from the red-light-district in favor of finding employment in the normal workaday world). On one interview where she’s almost dismissed out of hand as unemployable by a large company secretary (Felicity Gilbert) she’s mysteriously given an offer after the secretary confers with her superior, only to find out that the boss is Jerôme, filling in for his uncle while the older man deals with an illness. Jerôme could care less about Joe's office skills (except the ones that call for quickly clearing off a desk), interested only in once again getting up her skirt, but, surprisingly, she refuses with the explanation that she’s decided he’s “not her type” (which you’d think would exclude only anything less evolved than small mammals, based on what she’s shown us of herself so far). However, she’s concerned that he seems too interested in her (there’s that affection allergy coming into play again, especially after B's disgusting betrayal of their “maxima vulva” pledge) so she resists as long as she can, then finally gives in one morning arriving at the office ready for untamed lust only to find the uncle (Jesper Christensen) has returned, Jerôme’s waited long enough and finally run off with the secretary (who clearly understood Joe as a personal threat to her ambitions from the get-go), and Joe’s short-lived career at this company soon comes to an end when Uncle Businessman finds no use for such an incompetent helper. All of this just further confirms to Joe that there’s nothing to be gained by allowing emotion to temper her crusade for manipulation of any available male as well as verifying in her presentation to Seligman how generally useless and depraved she is.
“Chapter 3 Mrs. H” As we move on to the next chapter in Joe’s odyssey we first find her using deception to flatter the egos of several of the guys she’s regularly banging by telling all of them that they’re responsible for her first orgasm (an honor likely given to either her bathroom floor or that dampened gym ceiling rope). However, by this point she’s got so many lovers that she has to first randomly decide which ones to leave responsive (rather than exclusionary) answering-machine-replies for, then schedule them for nightly appointments where she simply refers to them as alphabetic letters rather than by name (she’s found some sort of job-by-day-stability over these short years but that just pays for the apartment where she puts her main energy after the job ceases its regular interruptions of her real needs), although one of them, Mr. H (Hugo Speer), makes the drastic mistake of falling in love with her, followed by the even-bigger-mistake of deciding to leave his wife and 3 sons in order to move in with her (completely unbeknownst to Joe who wants none of this). As he’s declaring his (uninvited, unwanted) devotion for her, they’re suddenly interrupted by Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) who’s come to make things as uncomfortable for both of the lovers as possible, with the added humiliation of bringing the children along. While Martin shows marvelous emotional range in what essentially becomes the starring role in this first volume of Nymphomania (which should easily equal the raves handed out so frequently to Adèle Exarchopoulos for her role as Adèle [not a misprint; the director was so taken with this actress—improperly so, some assert—that he changed the name of the original graphic-novel-character], the emerging lesbian in Blue Is the Warmest Color), I doubt that her emotional nakedness paralleled with her frequent nude scenes will win her any Best Actress nominations from the more traditional-minded Academy members next spring (although they should remember, along with anyone concerned that they’re exposing themselves to graphic pornography, that the penetrated part of Martin’s body actually was someone else superimposed on Martin through computer wizardry or was a prosthetic vagina [oh, the beauty and sophistication of the cinema industry where you can hear words such as those during your contract negotiations] fitted over her body [no wonder she said the sex scenes were somewhat boring]), but I do hope that these Oscar nominators remember this stunning turn by Thurman as a scorned wife running the full emotional gamut from bubbly (but as fake as the non-alcoholic stuff now being served at some college graduations) to traumatized in just the few minutes she has on screen (the perfect model for some definitions of Best Supporting Actress [wouldn’t you agree, Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables [Tom Hooper, 2012; reviewed in our December 30, 2012 posting])?]). [←I should get some sort of award for this complex construction, don't you think?] Although I have to give von Trier credit as screenwriter for some marvelous lines in this chapter as well, such as Mrs. H asking Joe, “Would it be alright if I show the children the whoring bed? After all, they also have a stake in this event,” followed by “Let’s go see Daddy’s favorite place.” Meanwhile, Mr. A (Cyron Melville) has shown up for his appointed time while all of this drama was unfolding so it’s just as comical watching his nonchalant semi-inclusion in the dialogue exchanges as tragedy builds for all of the “H’s” while humiliation builds for Joe, although she’s innocent of consciously destroying this marriage (that will surely take place on its own after she throws Mr. H out of her apartment to deal with the disaster he’s created for himself) even as she somewhat accepts the guilt for including married men in her entourage to begin with. I forget where Joe says this in the film, but it could easily apply to what she’s recounting in Chapter 3: “For me love was just lust with jealously added; everything else was total nonsense. For every hundred crimes committed in the name of love, only one is committed in the name of sex.”
“Chapter 4 Delirium” As we move to this chapter events take a darker turn, as does the imagery now presented in black-and-white as Joe tells Seligman about her father’s last days in the hospital, suffering from hallucinations and uncontrolled excretions (you’ve got to give Slater credit for allowing himself to be shown soiling both the bed and himself in that unconscious manner, a humiliating thing to watch even if you can empathize with his inability to direct his bodily functions). Seligman begins this segment in voiceover, narrating from Edgar Allen Poe: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher”; then we watch Joe as she watches helplessly while her father drifts in and out of consciousness in a manner that echoes Poe quite effectively. She tries to cheer him up at one point, recalling his story about the uniqueness of the ash tree, but she also has to distract herself by finding an orderly to have quick sex with away in the hospital’s maintenance quarters, only to return for a dry, meaningless conversation with her mother who shows up mostly out of a lost sense of obligation before departing from this story. However, Joe’s pain turns to humiliation once again when she admits to getting aroused (to the point of secretions running down her leg) as she looks upon her dead father, but even this is dismissed by her benefactor as being a normal displacement reaction that she shouldn’t criticize herself for; this openness to accepting what Joe perceives as her sins is Seligman’s general response to the entire life that she’s essentially confessing to him (in a secular rather than sacramental manner) for which he offers absolution: “If you have wings, why not fly?” (Which reminds me again of Renoir’s Rules of the Game, with its opening quote from Peirre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ opera Le Mariage de Figaro: “Is it a crime to change? If Cupid was given wings, Was it not to flitter?”)
“Chapter 5 The Little Organ School” As we enter the final chapter of this film we get another lesson from Seligman, this time about the polyphony structure in music where different melodic lines are played to complement each other rather than one main line serving as the primary sound to which others are simply harmonic support. He describes how this is played on an organ, where the bass melody is performed with the foot pedals, then a left-hand-melody-line is added, followed by the more noticeable but still distinct right-hand-melody-line so that the 3 interact in a synergetic manner even as they exist as separate identities, not just chords made up of interconnected notes. Joe notes how this resembles the next stage of her life where her schedule was organized around a full-time job along with up to 10 sex sessions a day but there were 3 “melodies” that stood out from the rest of her intercourse partners: The one she calls F resembles the foundational bass line in that this fat guy essentially worships her, providing any material comfort that he can without assuming any sense of reciprocal response from her; then we have G, the left-hand-equivalent, a very dominant, big-cat-like-guy who excites but still isn’t able to control her; finally, the foregrounded right-hand-melody-man appears in her life as a response to her taking a break from her hectic schedule, following scraps of torn photographs along her usual path through a city park until she comes upon their source—the return of Jerôme who’s now breaking up with his former-secretary-wife in hopes of reuniting with Joe. At first she’s overjoyed with this, finally willing to admit that this guy means more than just an available erect organ for her to apply to her constant needs, finally wiling to reject her “Forget about love” dictum in order to accept B’s encouragement to add a vast new dimension to sex—until the shocking revelation at the sudden end of Nymphomaniac: Volume I that when she actually makes love with Jerôme rather than simply having casual sex she has a response that she hasn’t encountered since early childhood: “I can’t feel anything.” With no warning, the woman who admits (perhaps as a result of Seligman’s constant attempts to reassure her that she’s not the amoral monster she assumes herself to be) that “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular color when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin” now has allowed love into her life possibly at the price of diluting the no-attachments-satisfactions that have so far defined her life. But, given that Joe’s joy has abandoned her, it seems only fitting to wrap up this review with my usual musical metaphor (no polyphony, just searing singular notes), B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” (written by Roy Hawkings and Rick Darnell in 1951; King’s version is from the 1969 Completely Well album), a 13-min. version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfqHLX3hdcs from the Chicago Crossroads Festival, 2010 (with King accompanied by [from left in the clip] Jimmie Vaughn, Robert Cray, and Eric Clapton); however, if you want just B.B. by himself here he is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aEwsSVYwSY from Switzerland’s Montreux jazz festival (presumably in July, 2012—although about the last 4 minutes of the 12 minute-run-time are devoted to audience ovation and band introductions).
As for what to make of Nymphomania (a tentative response, admittedly, because this is all one film so until I see Volume II I can’t say how the entire experience integrates), if the second half holds up as well as the first part then I think von Trier’s got another winner here (with possibly the longer director’s cut version being an even better viewing experience if you fancy sitting through 5 ½ hours of the same basic story, just with even more sex scenes as I understand it [which means it could be like asking a guy if he wants to watch an expanded Super Bowl telecast with a 1-hour halftime show of Beyoncé and her Destiny’s Child cohorts in their “oops-I-left-most-of-my-clothes-at-home”-outfits—or asking my wife if she wants to watch 5 ½ hours of Derek Jeter, Antonio Banderas, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson just reading various phone books, as long as they go shirtless (or better in terms of body revelation—although she’d probably put Mick Jagger in there too, as long as that skinny bloke keeps his shirt on so as to not ruin the whole experience)]). He’s already hit the jackpot at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival several times (Grand Prix du Jury for Breaking the Waves, Palme d'Or for Dancer in the Dark, Best Actress award for Charlotte Gainsbourg's performance in Antichrist, Best Actress award for Kirsten Dunst's performance in Melancholia)—even though he was banned from the 2011 event for (seemingly) joking at a press conference that he’s a Nazi (but if you’re familiar with his work, it’s hard to imagine von Trier not being offensive even when he doesn’t know why he’s being perceived that way, such as with the anti-American-hostility he received from several stateside directions for his depiction of U.S. intolerance and slavery in Dogville and Manderlay , although he’s never visited our shores to see what he’s condemning [his intense fear of flying probably contributes to his general isolation to his Scandinavian home base—not that I disagree with the tone of his condemnations, even if that means I’m persona non grata as well) which has led to his refusal to speak in public any further about his work so we'll just have to see if that imposed off-screen-silence continues.
Nymphomania doesn’t glorify sex nor does it denigrate a woman who feels compelled to wallow in it (nor does she feel blasé about the manner in which her indulgences sometimes have negative impacts on the willing men she entices as partners); instead it explores how a basic human compulsion, unlocked from its biological urge to replicate the species (although Joe’s yet to mention any form of birth control so whether she’s got a successful method or is just the luckiest Russian-roulette-player on the planet isn’t clear yet), controls even as it usually is controlled by a woman who knows her body, isn’t afraid to use it for her own needs (even though she’s conflicted by some of the paths it’s led her down), and understands the consequences of her actions. This is not a film to watch if you come in ready to make judgments on someone else’s life choices until you’ve had a chance to seriously consider their motivations nor is proper to use as a socially-sanctioned-substitute for full-blown-pornography (there’s a lot more going on here than just copulation—just as with Blue Is the Warmest Color—so if you need a masturbation-incitement please look elsewhere because there is a substantial narrative here, even if it’s one that you’d prefer to not be distracted by). All in all, Nymphomaniac (halfway through, at least) is a serious study of human obsession, acceptance of diversion, and acknowledgement that actions have reactions (just as Isaac Newton theorized, but not in regard to serial sex), whether they’re the result of unsatisfied needs or not. I highly recommend this film (so far) for a serious, contemplative adult audience, with strong hopes that Volume II brings it to an equally-satisfying-conclusion. Finally, having just returned from a weekend visiting William Randolph Hearst’s obsession (well, one of them at least; I’ll save comments on Marion Davies for another time), his opulent “castle” palace upon the hill at San Simeon, CA, I have to note that obsessions likely lie in the heart of all of us, even though sometimes we gaze in wonder at the splendor that, for example, architectural desire and unlimited financial resources can produce while we may denigrate a fellow human being just because her passion involves a private satisfaction (which gets us back to “Rosebud,” if you know what Herman Mankiewicz was really writing about in that famous Citizen Kane script). If you’ve got the gumption, Nymphomania: Volume I (and probably Volume II) is waiting for you. Joe’s inviting you in (yes, I’m still riffing on euphemisms); are you willing to join her?
If you want to know more about Nymphomaniac: Volume I here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VW7b6P7QyM (6 min. mini-documentary with commentary from Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbJ_f-gHch4 (40:00 press conference from Berlinale, February 2014, but it takes 17:00 of that to get through footage of photography of the interviewees—producer Louise Vesth and many of the cast of the film but not the director because of his policy of not speaking publically about his films—introduction of them, etc.)
http://www.metacritic.com/movie/nymphomaniac-volume-i (67% but based on only 18 reviews at the time of this posting so you might want to check back later for further developments)
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