My only disappointment with Nymphomaniac Vol. I right after its closing shot is that there’s some antsy waiting to be done before I get to see Vol. II and complete this monumental sex odyssey. Other than that, this is excellent. The first part of Lars von Trier’s immensely audacious and intellectually provocative cinematic analysis of nymphomania is everything you’d expect from the director – a heady confluence of his early Dogme style, his trademark subversive approach, nihilistic rebellion and his self-conscious references to the myriad fields that inform his art: literature, music, philosophy, psychology and hell, even science and mathematics. It’s explicit, unapologetic, fearless and above all, honest – leaving almost no sub-topic of the sexual nature of this human condition unexplored and unprovoked. Above all, this is a film made by von Trier for fans of von Trier, and it’ll prove too radical to convert non-devotees, unless if they just want to check out what Shia LaBeouf’s erect cock look like.
Told in chapters with intrinsic combinations of amusement, perplexity and self-serious enlightenment, the story of sexually and existentially afflicted Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg in the weary, anguished present, and model-turned-actress Stacy Martin in the jocund, often toe-curlingly hilarious flashbacks) is built around conversations that veer from one seemingly unrelated subject to the next – fly-fishing, religion, the Fibonacci sequence and Bach symphony – which all gain unexpected philosophical depth and texture in the context of Joe’s crisis. Von Trier takes his sweet time to explore and ruminate on the tapestry of his ideas, never allowing the trivialities of plot or pace to pander to the lesser-minded audience.
Sure, there is a lot of blowjobs and fucking involved in Joe’s manhunt, transforming from a curious, blushing virgin to sex addict by default via an initiation game of train-carriage cruising, but von Trier is aiming more to the head rather than our sexual organs. The film is notoriously graphic, of course, featuring possibly the most number of penetration shots and exposure of human genitalia in audio-visual media form that isn’t technically considered as all-out porn. But to lessen the explicit nature of this film (yes, including a montage of the diversity of penises) is akin to exhibiting a car in a showroom with missing parts – no wheels, no carburetor, no rearview mirror, no windscreen wipers.
Von Trier has already been accused of cold detachment in his portrayal of female sexuality, but that’s to completely miss the point. This is a woman who deems sex as a callous routine. Her anhedonia, the inability to feel, is reflected in the film’s unsentimental approach. Which makes her despairing howl for her lack of sensation deeply unsettling to watch. This tragic anti-heroine has reached the bottom pit of existential emptiness where love has become an obfuscation and sex has become completely mechanical.
It’s a typically bleak von Trier standpoint, but he doesn’t get there without flashes of humour. This is, in fact, his funniest film since The Idiots, where raucous laughter is accompanied with dark playfulness. It’s very hard not to watch Joe’s teenage sexual conquests without hints of glee, her treatment of the many men that fall to her clutches are both satirically triumphant and amusing. There’s also a standout scene with Mrs. H (a deliciously hyperbolic Uma Thurman in what will go down as one of 2014’s best scenes), a scorned wife who storms Joe’s ‘whoring bed’ in hysterical results. Even Stellan Skarsgård’s well-meaning intellectualising provides some humorous comfort to Joe’s misery.
Without having seen the latter part yet, suffice to say that Vol. I is an extended foreplay for the main event come Vol. II. I’ve been fortunate enough to see von Trier’s original uncut version, which Berlin Film Festival has graciously hosted, and there’s an undisputed genius at work here that most filmmakers could only ever dream of in their entire career. As a bonafide iconoclast and subversive artist, von Trier raises an obviously important discourse on the matters that are still left as taboos in our society at large. Nymphomaniac not only details a dark human experience of sex, but it also essays feminism and cultural liberalism with a refreshing lack of moral judgement.