Von Trier’s Character-Study of Ravenous Feminine Power Gets Split Up
By Cole Smithey (817 words)
Just as with Harvey Weinstein’s famous mistake of splitting Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” into two parts, the producers of Lars von Trier’s 240 minute film have seen fit to split it in two, rather than deliver the movie as the filmmaker intended. Big mistake. The result is exactly what you would expect, that of watching half of a movie. It is not a fair way for an audience to screen the film, much less an acceptable format for a critic to judge and contextualize it by. To make matters worse, there will also be a 5.5 hour director’s cut that will demand interested viewers cover old ground if they are invested enough to want to see von Trier’s entire film. Meh. Pshaw.
Volume I establishes the character of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-hating nymphomaniac rescued from the cold ground of a brick-wall-surrounded courtyard by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a thematically-charged character whose sole purpose — in Volume I at least — is as a human sounding-board and harmonizing influence for Joe's litany of sexual transgressions. Seligman is a lonely guy, a bit too pleased to have in his company a piece of female damaged-goods who wants nothing more than to spill the beans about her life of wild and naughty sexual diversions — indeed her sexual experiences are many and varied. Joe is one carnally voracious girl. The titillation dial is stuck on ten.
The film opens on a black screen. Water tinkles. The viewer is left to imagine its source. Is someone taking a leak? No. Snow is falling, and melted ice drips down a tin drain.
A passed-out Joe lies bloodied on the pavement of a well-concealed courtyard outside of Seligman's apartment. Seligman awakens her. He offers to call an ambulance or the police. Joe threatens to run off if he does. It’s tea that she wants. He invites her inside his sparsely appointed place and puts her in bed. The defenseless Joe begins to recount her sexually adventurous life that led up to her present wounded condition — possibly from some act of revenge or semi-public bit of BDSM. Seligman not only isn’t judgmental about Joe's checkered past, he finds all sorts of reference points from his own life — related to things such as fly-fishing. He sees similes in her troubled tale of bedding as many as ten men per day. Seligman is a dilettante counselor who is patient, and effete enough to listen to Joe’s outrageously erotic stories without becoming visually aroused or making a pass that would surely be easily received.
Not all of Joe’s flashbacks are sexual. She fondly remembers walking though a winter forest with her doting father (Christian Slater). Joe’s erotic journey is broken into chapters — four for each film. “The Compleat Angler” is the first section. Joe recounts playing a sexual conquest game with her best friend, in which the two teenage girls would compete for a bag of candies by seeing how many men they could seduce during a train ride. Joe gets extra points if she can extract a load from a married man on his way to impregnate his ovulating wife. His cock does indeed find its way into Joe’s hungry mouth. No surprise how that scene ends.
Joe’s flashback description of losing her virginity — at her own request — to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), a local London boy with a moped, brings up the fact that he "humped her three times in the front, and five times in the back." Seligman identifies Joe’s “most humiliating numbers” as following a Fibonacci series. Von Trier steals a page from Peter Greenaway when he superimposes graphic onscreen sub-titles and diagrams of the way Fibonacci numbers are used. Referenced is the way they approximate the natural order of a seashell. The numbers themselves flash on the screen as Jerôme pumps away at a younger version of Joe (played by a fearless Stacy Martin).
As Joe’s personal tales of kneejerk seductions go on, the sex scenes become gradually more graphic, and the sideline humor more sly. During the film’s third chapter “Mrs. H,” Uma Thurman plays the vengeful and curious wife of the man who has left her in order to be with Joe. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. H has any idea that they are interrupting a busy evening of carefully timed assignations that Joe has planned with various men.
Nymph()maniac is a sly piece of anti-slut-shaming cinema aimed at demystifying female carnal desire. It is a character-study of an ostensibly rare type of sexually ravenous woman. Von Trier creates a new breed of social satire that is equally daring and tame. While the film is fiercely pornographic, it does not represent pornography per se. “Love is the secret ingredient” that Joe denies and yet secretly seeks. Her loss of the ability to orgasm coincides with her father’s imminent death. Volume II promises to follow Joe’s experimentation into fetishized BDSM.
To be continued...
Not Rated. 117 mins. (B-) (Three Stars)