NYMPHOMANIAC Volume I
strong>Reviewed for CompuServe ShowBiz by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgardård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 3/10/14
Opens: March 21, 2014
One can just imagine some shady-looking guy wearing a stained raincoat observing that a movie entitled “Nymphomaniac” is opening. He smacks his lips and figures it must be screening somewhere on West 42nd St (he’s in a time warp and doesn’t realize that those places are no more), then notes to his amazement that it’s showing at the classy Landmark Sunshine Theater! He wonders, briefly, what is happening to our city that people like him can be accommodated there.
Happily for the rest of us, he is mistaken. “Nymphomaniac” may be a title that attracts folks in stained raincoats, but the hot scenes are a small segment of the two-hour picture that encompasses Volume I. Director Lars van Trier is far more interested in character. In this case, he’s looking into what goes into the makeup of a woman who cannot be sexually satisfied despite her merry-go-roundelay of assignations, and per her own confession has always felt lonely even in the presence of a diverse assortment of men.
That Lars von Trier, whose “Melancholia” deals with a pair of sisters who test their relationship as the world is coming to an end, and whose more accessible “Dancer in the Dark” explores the psyche of an East European woman who go to America with her young son expecting our country to be like a Hollywood film, chose Stacy Martin for the lead role as title figure is puzzling. She is an upcoming (so to speak) performer who merits only one or two sentences on the Internet Movie Database. Moreover she is slim and androgynous looking, picked perhaps to convey her passage from the innocence of a girl of fifteen until her role is taken over now and then by Charlotte Gainsbourg) decades later.
There is nothing innocent about the mature adult, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as she is found in the alley of an undisclosed country (where even Shia LaBoeuf speaks British) beaten to a pulp, seeming near death. She is taken in by Seligman (Stellan Skargård), the last character you’d expect to have a carnal interest in her. Nonetheless, Seligman, an intellectual who lives in a spare flat and is an ascetic whose two luxuries in life are Bach and fishing, encourages the middle-aged Joe to tell stories about her conquests as though he were talking to Scheherazade, with Seligman as a would-be therapist with possible visions of helping her over the hump (so to speak). We in the audience are regaled with details of her life, some titillating, some graphically sexual (lower-half body doubles of porn actors are used rather than subject principal performers to immodesty). “Nymphomanic” is nothing if not a patiently portrayed gaze into the woman’s inner life. We want to know why she tells Seligman about her life with a poker face, an unchanging look whether she is describing her teen seductions of passengers on a train—per a game she is playing with her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) betting who can have sex with more men—or when she is relating how she feels after destroying a middle-aged married man’s domestic life.
The sexual scenes are one thing. They show young Joe generally ecstatic except for the time she is fifteen and invites a boy to help her lose her virginity. She is hurting and vows never to have sex again. What’s clear from these scenes is the temporary nature of release leaving the poor nymphomaniac feeling as lonely as the old man she sees regularly when she takes her cleansing walks in the woods. She has sex with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who turns up later as the guy who hires her for his printing firm despite what Jerôme’s secretary (Felicity Gilbert) thinks about the prognosis of a woman sans skills. She has sex with a man who is not allowed to touch her. In the film’s best scene, one which brims with morbid humor, she causes a breakup of Mr. H’s (Hugo Speer) marriage leading the roving man’s wife, Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman), to deliver a caustic, guilt-inducing monologue to her husband and her three young boys (Frankie Dawson, George Dawson, Harry Dawson).
The movie is filled with style, particularly the metaphor that Seligman draws in the first chapter of this Volume 1, comparing Joe’s ventures of hooking in men with Seligman’s own acquaintance of fishing with artificial fly baits, which he uses to tantalize the fish, pulling away, drawing back. In split screens von Trier compares a slice of humanity with a tiger bearing prey in its mouth. If Joe has a saving grace, she loves her father (Christian Slater), spending long hours with him when he is on his deathbed, watching as the nurses respond to an emergency delirium and orderlies clean him up and mop the floor.
Ultimately, this volume tantalizes the audience enough to want to see the second part, one which involves African partners and brings in Willem Dafoe while showing us what has happened to Jerôme, her favorite bedmate, when he is old.
Unrated. 117 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B+