Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is undeniably an unusual film. (I have not seen Vol. 2, and we won’t get it here for another two weeks.) It’s also a difficult film to describe. My first, very knee-jerk, reaction was that it was the best movie I could imagine that forced me to listen to a Rammstein song twice. My second reaction was that it’s not in the least erotic; it’s like trying to find an erotic thrill by looking in a medical textbook. That does not mean that the film isn’t full of nudity and graphic sex, because it is, but it never struck me as titillating. Even if the sex involves porn actors, it’s still the sort of thing that isn’t likely to get a rating. But by far my most interesting reaction is that I found the film surprisingly playful, often funny — sometimes funny and tragic at the same time — and strangely old-fashioned. In that last respect, I mean it feels like an old novel — like Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders — more than an edgy, 21st-century film.
The story is the possibly suspect narrative being told by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to a man — apparently named Segilman, but mostly referred to as Jude (Stellan Skargard) — who found her battered and unconscious on the street. When he takes her home, cleans her up and puts her to bed, she brushes off his concern about her condition by blaming herself, claiming, “I’m just a bad human being.” Since her host doesn’t believe in a “bad human being,” she attempts to prove her point by recounting her life story — mostly as relates to her sexual appetite and her efforts to satisfy it. This goes all the way back to prepubescent days, but reaches full-flower when she arrives at her teenage years (where she’s played by Brit model Stacy Martin). She gives up her virginity to a crude young man named Jay (Shia LaBeouf sporting a dodgy English accent) — more as something to be gotten out of the way than anything else. But soon she’s got bigger fish to fry, or catch, since the movie details part of her quest in terms of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler.
It is through these stories — digressions as von Trier calls them — that Seligman and viewers start to build an image of Joe’s life story. Some of these tales are touching, but even more are weirdly comic. Von Trier’s approach is creative and playful, especially when he offers his own digressions by presenting us with diagrams (including one on parallel parking) and numerical accounts of the number of strokes it takes Jay to deflower Joe. (This aspect of the film recalls Richard Lester’s films like The Knack … and How to Get It and Help! [both 1965].) The film darts back and forth between Joe’s sexual odyssey and her more tranquil memories of her father (Christian Slater), along with her conversations with Seligman. It turns out that Jay will return, now calling himself Jerome, and that Joe feels both some kind of love for him and a deep need to put him in his place. The stories just tumble out of her. The most striking is her encounter with the wife (Uma Thurman) of a man, Mr. H (Hugo Speer), who believes he’s moving in with Joe. Mrs. H. arrives with three children in tow (since they have a stake in this) staging a scene that is both comic (“Would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?”) and heartrending.
Where is all this leading? Well, it does lead to a point where Seligman openly voices his suspicion that she’s making this up — an idea she doesn’t dispute but dismisses with the threat of stopping the narrative. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell just where it’s going, since this is only part one. (At least it ends at a logical point that suits the two-part approach.) I’m at a point where I don’t know if I care where von Trier is taking us, but I’m more than ready to find out. Is it great? Maybe, but I’m only convinced at this point that it’s fascinating. Greatness will have to wait. Not Rated, but contains explicit graphic sex.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.