There is a lot of explicit sex going on in Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 – really, it would be false advertising if there wasn’t – but the movie can’t be written off either as exploitation or shock cinema. A provocative exploration of shame, sin, love and desire, this is a complicated and compelling film that’s uncomfortable in necessary ways.
The Vol. 1 refers to the fact that writer-director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) divided his opus into two sections. It all begins with a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is lying bloodied in an alley when an older man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) passes by. She begs him not to call an ambulance or the police, but instead takes him up on his offer to recover in his apartment. The rest of the film alternates between their increasingly philosophical conversation and her tale of the excessive sexual exploits of her youth. (The younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin.)
Nymphomaniac holds nothing back in the details of these flashbacks. Yet in time, the graphic approach serves to demystify the physical aspect of what we’re seeing and allows us to consider what the acts being depicted might mean – both for the characters onscreen and for ourselves. The conversations between Gainsbourg and Skarsgard aid this process, considering they are largely verbal deconstructions of Joe’s actions and their larger implications.
Without any shaming – Seligman tells Joe early on that he doesn’t really believe in sin – Nymphomaniac nonetheless comes away with a grim view of her liberated brand of sexuality. While Joe recounts a youthful adventure in which she and a friend prowl a train, competing to see who could have sex with the most men, Seligman compares her to a fly-fishing lure that’s been decorated as a nymph in order to catch prey. This, of course, puts Joe in the position of predator, yet if she is the nymph and the men are the fish, what does it say that even when she’s “successful” they end up gobbling her whole?
If she is the nymph and the men are the fish, what does it say that even when she’s “successful” they end up gobbling her whole?
As much as Nymphomaniac depicts Joe on the hunt – and her orgasmic conquests – it also depicts her as being devoured. At least that’s how her experiences seem to leave her. She speaks of guilt, yes – which Seligman quickly dismisses as religious nonsense. Yet more deeply felt in the film is the emptiness and dissatisfaction she continues to feel, no matter how many sexual experiences she has. (In this, Nymphomaniac echoes Steve McQueen’s Shame.) Even after the film’s most inventive defense of her promiscuity – a split-screen sequence in which three men are compared to one of Bach’s polyphonic compositions, combining their “voices” to create one harmonious sound – she still speaks of her life as “monotonous and pointless,” even comparing her existence to that of a caged animal.
If there is a weak point in the film, it goes by the name of Shia LaBeouf. He plays Jerome, a recurring figure in Joe’s life. Jerome is mostly a boorish doofus, and for a good chunk of the film Joe rebuffs him. But then, without much motivation, she comes to think of him as someone she might love. LaBeouf is a distraction even before this turn; when he’s supposed to be an object of sincere affection, he’s almost disastrous. I never bought LaBeouf as representative of something significantly different from Joe’s other lovers. What about him does she find so distinctive? LaBeouf gives us no hint, aside from the fact that he’s a movie star and his accent is more wobbly than anyone else’s.
Vol. 1 leaves us with Jerome and Joe in bed, in something of a cliffhanger. There is also, of course, the question of how the older, wounded Joe ended up in that alley. I found Nymphomaniac interesting enough to be curious about both elements, though I also fear the movie is headed toward the chaotic near-nihilism that tends to conclude so many of von Trier’s pictures, for better (Dancer in the Dark, Melancholia) and worse (Antichrist). Vol. 1 delivers such a sobering vision of the dead end of distorted sexuality, I’m not sure I need to see that end get even deader in Vol. 2.