Lars von Trier’s notorious Nymphomaniac Volume 1 is sensational. That description suggests the film is great—and it does have moments of brilliance—but it really is about sensory feelings, or the lack of them. The rain in the opening sequence is palpable, as is the “sensation” Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) calls it, when she describes wrapping her legs around a rope in gym class. Von Trier captures these and many other moments beautifully in his formally stylized but slightly chilly film.
Nymphomaniac Volume 1 unfolds in a series of chapters that are being told by Joe to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard). He has taken her home and given her tea after finding her beaten up and lying in an alley near his home. Her stories describe Joe (Stacy Martin as the young Gainsbourg) losing her virginity at 15 to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), or having a contest with her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) to sleep with as many men as possible in one night. Curiously, Seligman does not judge Joe’s sexploits; rather he encourages her to unburden herself. He even interjects her narrative with related anecdotes about fly-fishing, cake forks, the Fibonacci sequence, and Bach’s polyphonic music.
If it sounds pretentious, at times, Nymphomaniac Volume 1 is. But then there are those moments of brilliance, as when young Joe tries to recall Jerome by creating a “jigsaw puzzle” of his features from a gallery of men, or a shot of Joe triggered to lubrication. Seligman defends Joe’s behavior, which she is largely ashamed of, and this provides the film with its moral fulcrum. Are viewers feeling anything for the characters? Or is von Trier asking audiences to confront their own attitudes towards sex and death? Likely both, but possibly neither.
Nymphomaniac Volume 1 is certainly atmospheric. The wind Joe’s father senses in an early scene is as vivid as a later episode where Joe’s hospitalized father has soiled himself and has to be cleaned. Von Trier is also both seductive when he films an erotic coupling, and a nipple being sucked, but clinical when he presents a sequence of the various penises Joe has encountered. Whether audiences respond or even react to these more explicit episodes in the film will determine its success.
For the most part, Nymphomaniac Volume 1 is as detached as Joe. There are some encounters that generate some frisson—as when Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman) shows up at Joe’s to introduce her three sons to the woman their father left her for. Alas, the film’s romantic throughline, which involves Joe and Jerome, is perhaps the weakest aspect of Nymphomaniac Volume 1. This is not because—as Seligman states—there are too many coincidences in the story, but because LaBeouf is badly miscast. Stacy Martin, in comparison, is an intriguing actress; she gives an incredibly brave performance here, even with von Trier’s use of body doubles for the sex scenes.
Even with these minor quibbles, there will be viewers who will not get enough from Nymphomaniac Volume 1, and will wait impatiently for Volume 2 (opening April 4). Then again, some viewers may want to hold judgment until they see the entire film. Just as Nymphomaniac is divided in two, it is sure to be as divisive a film.
Nymphomaniac Volume 1 opens today at the Ritz East.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.