Nymphomaniac: Vol 1: Unsatisfied & Liking It

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by Catie Robbins

In the case of a new Von Trier film about nymphomaniacs, much is expected, and every mistake is tallied. Somehow, regardless of the final count, the film satisfies. It’s not that it takes little to satisfy, but rather that it’s the little things that seem to satisfy. Little things which are all lovingly and liberally placed in Nyphomaniac: Vol 1.

It just takes some sorting to find the little things. A rigorous tactic of frustration seems to be at work when Seligman, an old man played by Stellen Skargard who takes in the bruise-faced Charlotte Gainsbourg from the street, repeatedly interrupts the chronicling of her inherently fascinating sexcapades to enumerate the banalities of fly fishing. Lacking humor, these interruptions dissipate our attention. The entire film is meted out this way, told in four chapters with accompanying titles, between questionable The Princess Bride style returns to the bed-time story at hand.

Early chapters start strong. In the first chapter Joe and best friend Sophie Kennedy Clark take on a contest of who can sleep with more men on the train, and the scene is as playfully dirty as we hope, a situation of perfect drama. The following chapters, while moving because they are philosophically rich, fail to fulfill the dramatic promises made by the train scene.

Most disappointing was Gainsbourg’s borderline creepy performance as she narrates to Seligman. Admittedly we know nothing of what’s come of her character since her earlier stories, but she doesn’t match her youthful personality, played by Stacy Martin, whose aloofness contrasts with Gainsbourg’s hardened, secretive persona. The newcomer actually surpasses Gainsbourg in creating someone believable, while Gainsbourg’s Joe is so complex that she fails to emit a recognizable personality—this may be Young Joe’s job.  Joe may have experienced things that have driven her into apathy and out of a personality. Hopefully Vol. II will solve the discrepancy. Skarsgard’s character, whose motives throughout the film are unguessable, leaves us with an unfortunate half-portrait of one of the main players. To his credit, the script doesn’t provide much for him to rise into. Least disappointing is LaBoeuf’s whack at a British accent, which we weren’t really expecting much from anyway, so even his half attempt doesn’t let us down in the sense of falling down, it’s more just a roll over, and in any case nothing uncomfortable.


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In the third chapter, Uma Thurman as Mrs. H, the wife of one of Joe’s eight or so lovers, bursts in on Joe with her husband, having brought along three painfully adorable ginger sons, and tries in vain to awkward us to death in a scene that echoes the problems of the whole film. Thurman only intermittently hits stride in an admittedly complex characterization, wavering between lucidity, emotional break-down, and absurd banality, which unfortunately actually bores (again, in lieu of humor which would have worked well). Combined with the jilted structure of the scene which is pitted with stops and goes, it never takes flight. Tragically, we can feel exactly what is trying to be done. Even so, the fascinating nature of the narrative is strong enough that knowing what we’re supposed to have seen is a unique experience only rarely offered.

Visually, this is a film that is damaged by eclecticism. In the first chapter during the train scene, the cinematography is lush, grungy, and perfectly dated. Afterwards we must endure stylistic changes allover, and while each choice pleases visually, unity is lost. One chapter is in black and white, a scene which makes us feel guilty for our total boredom upon watching Joe witness her hospitalized father in a state of pre-death delirium. Joe’s father is played by Christian Slater. For a guy who was in Heathers (1988), not even black and white can make Slater look fatherly. As a result, the only dramatic question on our mind throughout the scene is, is this in black and white to somewhat shelter us from the moment where we are shown his ass wiped? The answer is of course no, Von Trier would never shelter us from anything; the choice is completely unmotivated. It would be snotty to say that  because the total overload of beautiful imagery  didn’t necessarily fit together that my eyes didn’t enjoy it. Visual unity is important, but lack of it wasn’t the biggest problem. The scene didn’t fit in the story in any sense; if it was added for empathy, we already had empathy for her sometimes emotionless character due to deflowering scene.


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Above: Vol II

The ideas of the film are beautiful and unique, so that it feels strange to spend time weighing the problems.  The idea of a nymphomaniac finding love is simply great while being greatly simple, even if LaBoeuf is to be our leading man in this anti-romance. While your and my crush on him ended after Even Stevens, it nearly waddles back when the film finally gets around to presenting Gainsbourg’s antagonist in this story: love. Love is a fascinating element as told by this story. To be exact, your abandoned crush threatens to come back when Gainsbourg describes love, and we see a montage of LaBeouf’s character’s personal objects and she explains how she obsesses over the things on his desk. Too true, right? Love is so foreign to her that she comes to it first as an adult, able to describe her first understanding of it to an audience of people who’ve never seen it with fresh eyes. Here we are given something real to bite on, or at least something compelling and difficult to dismiss. Joe’s sentimental observances contrast nicely with her first definition of love as “jealousy combined with lust” another concept your mind will delight over toying with. These beautiful ideas, of which there are several more to discover, are somewhat diffused of their power due to the loose tension of the film, the cinematographic eclecticism, the missed marks in performance, but the power of them is undeniable.

We don’t always go to the movies to witness perfect craftsmanship. When we do, it’s wasted time without the delight of a few beautiful ideas. The vehicle for these may have its imperfections, but the philosophies and questions are the value sought. Vol 2 will be a must-see, whether or not it’s due in part to feeling frustrated and unsatisfied by the first, and whether or not that was Von Trier’s design, bringing us into communion with the constant feelings of the nymphomaniac.






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