Nymphomaniac, Volume I
by Hope Madden
Nymphomaniac, Volume I, is a difficult film to review, and not, surprisingly enough, because of its subject matter. The fact is that filmmaker provocateur Lars von Trier’s latest affront is, indeed, an unfinished piece. As engaging as Volume I is, it is not a standalone film, and without knowing precisely where LvT is going, it’s hard to say how well he’s getting there.
What we have so far is a not-so-simple dialogue. Old bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a battered young woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alley. She won’t see a doctor, so he nurses her at his home and, in return, she tells him the story of her life. Well, the first part, anyway.
For the next couple of hours, it’s as if LvT’s morose side (Gainsbourg, as Joe) argues with his impish side (Skarsgard), while Stacy Martin (playing the young Joe) has a lot of sex. The film is as much a story about storytelling as it is anything.
Joe sometimes rests in her confession to allow a little editorial from the helpful and artfully non-judgy Seligman. (Could he be named for the famed American psychologist Martin Seligman, founder of “positive psychology” and the theory of learned helplessness?) Seligman not only points out that she’s being too hard on herself, but offers different allegories from nature and science to enliven her narrative, sometimes even questioning the veracity of her tale based on contrivance and coincidence he’s finding.
Again, it’s as if LvT is arguing with himself over narrative devices and the strength of his own storytelling. It offers the film a playfulness rarely found in the Dane’s work, and the humor works wonders in keeping attention and distancing the film from a label of pornography.
Von Trier draws attention to the artifice he’s created. Even the title suggests a literary, romantic (as opposed to realistic) approach – in that the term used for the last several decades is sex addiction, which hardly conjures the same image.
His cast is game. A brief, supporting turn from Uma Thurman, in particular, is wickedly funny. But the star here is the filmmaker. Expect the von Trier trademarks: a visually magnificent display populated with shame, gender politics, sexuality, religion, all led by a wounded female who cannot fit in this world.
He’s exploring the same territory. Maybe he’s trying to distract us from that fact with all the sex? Or maybe he’s playing with us. While Volume II promises to be a more punishing effort, LvT’s first episode is surprisingly enjoyable.