I want to get this out of the way early, because I know at least one member of my immediate family will be reading this review – Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is not porn. Well, not entirely.
The first half of the new film by Lars von Trier – a director well known for making movies a little outside the mainstream – is concerned with the life of a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) afflicted with the titular condition. After a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers our heroine, Joe, bloody and beaten on the street, he brings her back to his home. Joe is obviously distressed over the shape her life has taken, and without too much prodding from Seligman she begins to tell her life story, starting with her earliest sexual experiences at a young age (played here by Stacy Martin).
Joe’s life is inextricable from her sex addiction, so the presentation of her history is accompanied by many (many) depictions of graphic sex. Writer/director von Trier used digital effects to paste the faces and bodies of his actors onto the genitalia of pornstars. It seems like a costly and time consuming process, especially when the sex could have been portrayed in a more – how to put this… simulated fashion. Von Trier’s insistence upon using the real deal (this is a strange subject to be writing about in such a self-serious manner) is clearly supposed to affect the viewer. He intends for us to be made uncomfortable by what we’re seeing on screen. The goal is not to fetishize Joe’s exploits, but to show them as explicitly as they are being related to Seligman.
And it is not as if the whole two hours is just the graphic stuff; von Trier finds plenty of time for moments that are similarly revealing, but in a less literal sense. The episodic film is divided into five chapters, each one expanding on Young Joe’s descent into her mania. Each chapter has its own moments of comedy, tragedy and, yes, sensuality.
It falls to the actors to give the film a gravitas greater than page views it will ultimately drive to Mr. Skin. Gainsbourg is primarily relegated to a narration role in this first part; most of the good bits in the present day come courtesy of Skarsgård, who balances Seligman’s voyeuristic fascination with a clinical intellectualism that is sometimes enlightening and often hilarious. Martin is the real star of this half of the feature. Von trier asks a lot of his young lead, and she is totally game for everything he throws at her. Martin brings intense emotion to every scene, even when her character means to put on a mask.
Von Trier manages to get excellent performances even from the more puzzling members of his cast. Shia LaBeouf plays the object of most of Young Joe’s affection, Jerôme. All of LaBeouf’s real-world issues tend to distract from the fact that he does have acting chops, and even though his accent ranges from American to British to Australian, he shows a fair amount of restraint in his role. “Restraint” is the name of the game among the supporting cast. Uma Thurman lends a quietly tormented turn in Chapter Three, as the wife of one of Young Joe’s many partners. Thurman is on screen for about 8 minutes, during which she takes over the film, before quickly returning it to Martin and exiting. Even Christian Slater (whose metamorphosis into Jack Nicholson is nearing completion) plays Joe’s father not-quite-subtly, but significantly smaller than Slater is capable of going (which is a good thing in this case).
The movie is neither a condemnation nor a pardon of Joe’s actions. Von Trier is clearly a supporter of sexual liberation, but his movie acknowledges the complications that can arise out of too much liberty. He lends an air of unreality to the film; characters behave and speak in ways that no one ever truly would. It works though, nicely complementing the outlandishness of the sex scenes.
Von Trier attempts to show that sex is as potent a storytelling device as any other, and he succeeds. I look forward to seeing the second half of Joe’s life when Vol. II is released. The more graphic scenes are off-putting (have I mentioned how graphic the movie is? There is a penis montage, just to give you some perspective), but, much like Joe and Seligman, we must pass through the crucible of Joe’s actions to get a real glimpse of who she is. It is just unfortunate that along the way we have to learn more than anyone should know about how Shia LaBeouf has sex. Fair warning, that’s gonna stick with you.