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Entries in Nymphomaniac: Volume One [2013] (1)

Sunday
Mar232014

Nymphomaniac: Volume One (2013)

Lure Id

Nymphomaniac: Volume One is a hard film to review. Because I'm only half-way through the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the titular sexual adventuress who recounts her bizarre life to a man who finds her beaten in the street, I can't tell whether or not she's a sympathetic character. It's certainly hard to like her, and even harder, at this point, to care whether or not she will be redeemed at the end of writer/director Lars von Trier's meandering art-house porno. But the completist in me knows I'll find out, whether I want to or not.

In essence, Nymphomaniac is much more fun to think about than it is to actually watch. What might have been a genuinely provocative experience twenty years ago is now old hat, thanks to the Internet and reality TV shows featuring horny, vacuous people droning on and on with excuses for their promiscuous behavior. Not that Joe needs excuses. She was born with an insatiable sex drive, she tells the (probably) impotent Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), and feels nothing for the marriages she's ruined or the men she's used as talking vibrators--as many as ten a day at the height of her powers.*

Von Trier is certainly interested in what makes Joe tick, and does his best to paint a picture of a young woman who never had a chance to enjoy a healthy sex life. So far, though, he hasn't dug beyond cliche: Joe's mom (Connie Nielsen) was cold; her dad (Christian Slater) was warm but easily intimidated; and her first sexual encounter was a three-minute shag with a not-too-bright motorcycle enthusiast named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf)--who handled her with all the tenderness of an oil change.

We spend most of the film in flashback, with the Joe of her late-teens and twenties, as played by Stacy Martin. Cute, skinny, and up for anything, at one point she literally sleeps her way across Europe: in a competition with best friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), they wager who can screw the most men on a single train ride. I don't remember the tally, but I think the tie-breaker was above ten,** and involved a businessman ejaculating his future children into Joe's mouth (I'm not being intentionally vulgar here; he was rushing home to be with his ovulating wife). In fairness, it was heartwarming to see Joe collect that big bag of candy at the girls' final stop.

Joe isn't oblivious to the vacuousness of her existence, she's simply incapable of emotionally responding to it. It doesn't help that she's never met a man who treated her as anything as a lust object. When Jerome pops back up in her life as a boss at a business card company, she rejects him outright. He thinks he's just purchased his own bag of candy, on which he can graze at his desk. But Joe makes it clear she's in control. As it turns out, she may really love him, and they play a game of relationship cat-and-mouse that will, of course, drag into the next volume.

If it weren't for Uma Thurman's truly adult turn in this movie, Nymphomaniac: Volume One would have been utterly pointless. She plays Mrs. H, whose husband, Mr. H (Hugo Speer), has left her and their three sons for Joe. What follows is a beautifully passive-aggressive-turned-aggressive-aggressive scene in which Mrs. H brings the entire "new family" together at Joe's apartment for an impromptu reckoning of the situation. As luck would have it, Joe's on the clock, and her next hook-up is scheduled to arrive shortly--plus, she has zero interest in anything long-term with the vaginally mesmerized Mr. H. Sure, the scene is a cartoon, but its tone rises above the somber self-seriousness of the rest of the film and, in a striking meta-commentary, allows Mrs. H to remind everyone that actions have consequences.

The sad truth about Nymphomaniac, so far, is that it's just another drugs-and-destruction movie. Von Trier gets points for gimmickry but there's nothing sensual or even interesting about the way his particular narcotic is administered. That's probably his point, but in lieu of any remorse or heart-felt self-actualization on the part of the characters (or at least artistic flair on the part of the filmmaker), it's hard to take his thesis seriously. Despite Seligman's convenient, thematically appropriate fishing metaphors and talk of Fibonacci numbers, there's no disguising the possibility that Joe might just be a monster. She says as much, many times, but he simply won't take the evidence she presents into account. I, for one, was done with this box of rocks by the time she dismissively copped to not knowing who Edgar Allen Poe was.

The film's main selling point (besides Thurman's powerfully wacky scene) is the fact that we can once again take Christian Slater seriously. Let's leave aside the atrocious British accent that both he and Labeouf pass clumsily back and forth like hot potatoes, and focus on the gravitas of his final scene. He suffers from some kind of dementia and spends his last days in a hospital with only Joe at his side. The sadness and mania in his performance are, again, welcome punctuations to a story that doesn't seem to understand how real people think and act.

I know, I know. Movies are a playground of escapism where real-world rules don't necessarily apply. But it's difficult to relate to a film that so brazenly asks the audience to accept, or at least understand, behavior that many of us have grown up believing to be abhorrent. It's a two-hour (actually four) equivalent of uncritically watching an episode of Jerry Springer and musing, "Well, I guess everybody's different, and that's okay".

No, I'm drawing a line in the sand here: In the absence of internal or external forces calling Joe out on her self-involved nonsense, I'm fully prepared to call Nymphomaniac a bad movie.

Bad, not because of artlessness (von Trier's signature flourishes are all over this picture, but at this point it's just old-hat, indie-film filigree), but because the auteur seems to be speaking to maybe twelve people he knows, or might have read about in an article somewhere. Even his weirder ventures into madness, like the far-superior Antichrist and Melancholia, have something to say about loss and relationships that people who've experienced loss and had adult relationships might recognize.

I'm hopeful that volume two will turn things around (facing another two hours of art-house Red Shoe Diaries, I have to be). But my instincts tell me I'm in for the full-on Joe treatment: screwed, bored, and talked to death.

*The word you're looking for is "Ouch".

**Again, "Ouch".