It’s a testament to Lars von Trier that his Nymphomaniac: Volume I is provocative in ways far more complex than the title suggests. The visual component of graphic, unsimulated sexuality is certainly there, but what we see isn’t as shocking as the thoughts and feelings of the central character, from whom the title is derived. Her real name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and in recalling the details of her sexual odyssey, beginning at the age of three with the discovery of her genitals, she simultaneously and rather candidly reveals the content of her character. Though she has obviously been unencumbered by societal double standards, and despite the empowerment she has always felt feeding into the physical desires of men, she seems incapable of expressing or even feeling emotions and believes herself to be an irredeemably bad person.
The character of She from von Trier’s own Antichrist, also played by Gainsbourg, devalued herself in much the same way as Joe, coming to the conclusion after studying witchcraft and enduring the death of her infant son that women are inherently evil. The sexual component is there in both films. What distinguishes Nymphomaniac is that the lead male character doesn’t agree with Joe’s assessment of herself, and therefore doesn’t try to punish her. This would be Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who enters Joe’s life by spotting her lying bruised and bloodied in the middle of the street and offering his apartment as a sanctuary. As she recovers on a twin bed, sipping cups of tea, she tells him what is essentially her life story, in which multiple sexual encounters eventually become her means of self-identification.
As the title makes perfectly clear, she gets to tell only the first part of her story; the second part will remain untold until the release of Volume II next month. Volume I is divided into five chapters, most featuring Joe as a younger woman (Stacy Martin). What’s interesting is that Seligman is not merely listening to the older Joe’s story. He actively converses with her, and rather than turn her graphic descriptions into perverted sexual fantasies, he instead shows his understanding with metaphoric references to his own personal interests, most prominently fly fishing, in ways that are surprisingly logical. Perhaps that’s why Joe never indicates that she’s being interrupted. Rather, she skillfully uses his passages of dialogue as springboards for the next parts of her story. It’s a fascinating thing to watch, this melding of minds.
As a child, we see Joe and another girl discovering their bodies by removing their underwear in a bathroom, wetting the floor with a shower head, and sliding around on the floor, pretending to be frogs. As a young woman who has already lost her virginity, we see Joe and another friend making a game out of how many men they can each have sex with while riding a train; whoever wins gets a bag of chocolate candies as a prize. We also see her reaching the point at which she has sex with seven to eight men a day. This isn’t about love, which the older Joe views negatively. And yet, she was told in her younger days that the secret ingredient to sex is love. Perhaps, at that point in her life, the exception to the rule was a local boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), who deflowered her at the age of fifteen, some years later hired her as his secretary for obvious reasons, and later still became one-third of a sexual cantus firmus, each of her men a separate musical melody that together form a polyphony.
Of the film’s five chapters, two are not only the most haunting but also feature two established actors giving arguably the best performances of their careers. In chapter three, Mrs. H., one of Joe’s regulars makes the decision to abandon his family in favor of her; upon returning with his luggage, his wife (Uma Thurman), unexpectedly drops by, along with her three sons. Not only does she want her husband to understand what he has given up, she also wants her boys to see who their father is leaving them for, and insists they take mental snapshots of Joe’s bed. Chapter four, Delirium, shot in black and white, has Joe facing the reality of her dying father (Christian Slater), languishing in a hospital room and in the final throes of an unnamed illness. In spite of the indignity and the loss of bodily control he endures, there comes a point at which Joe is no longer able to feel an emotion. Her only reaction is physical – her vagina lubricating itself.
Seligman occasionally attempts to justify Joe’s actions, which Joe resists, usually with mild anger in her voice. It’s not his job to convince her of her worth; it’s her job to convince him of her worthlessness. At this point in her story, he isn’t inclined to see her as she sees herself. But her story isn’t finished yet. What will he think of her after she has told him everything about herself? Of all the questions Nymphomaniac: Volume I raises, that one weighs heaviest. Of course, in an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter what Seligman, or anyone else, thinks of Joe. It would only matter what she thinks of herself, and she would actively work towards a more positive self-image. But Lars von Trier, known within film circles for his bouts of severe depression, doesn’t much concern himself with ideals. There’s a reason the last lines are anguished cries of, “I can’t feel anything!”
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