How does one review Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1"? More so than most movies with an obvious sequel around the corner, this is a film that just ends with clearly half a story left. By its very nature it is an unsatisfying experience. One can measure its success, perhaps, with whether or not it entices you to spend your next ten VODollars on the upcoming chapter.
Using this as a metric – and considering "Vol. 1" as a complete text – color me not-too-impressed. I've talked this over with some who screened both volumes at the Berlin Film Festival and they tell me, to paraphrase Sam & Dave, to hold on, it's comin'. So, with that bit of hemming and hawing out of the way, let's embrace this movie as the marketplace presents it, as its own movie. It's own pretentious, preposterous movie.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is discovered bloody and beaten and laying in the rain in an alley. (Lots of dripping imagery in this film, let me tell you.) Stellan Skarsgard takes her home to his somewhat monkish apartment with so few possessions that each one is enough to spark a memory. After confessing that she is a "bad human being," Gainsbourg starts telling her life's story.
The tale is told from the frank point of view of her libido. She begins with an uncomfortable discussion of toddler-aged sexuality, one that involves rubbing along floors and the like. These scenes are not indecent (nor are they uncommon, lest you are a new parent aghast at your child's behavior) but they are likely to ruffle feathers of some audience members. This is a dangerous topic, and if you want to tackle it you had best, as they say in the rap game, come correct.
Von Trier, unfortunately, does not come correct. For each interesting idea that is sprinkled throughout Gainsbourg's history, it is positively squelched by Skarsgard's relentless commentary. Each turn in the story (with newcomer Stacy Martin representing a young Gainsbourg) is battered by voice over. If you thought Ellen Page's exposition tornado was distracting in “Inception,” prepare yourself to watch Von Trier present an obvious visual metaphor and then hear “it was like a metaphor” spoken on the soundtrack.
Plotwise, all that we've got so far is that this young gal grew up very sexual. She initiated her own deflowering with a mechanic Shia LaBeouf (in a half-apartment/half-garage if the workmanlike scenario was lost on you.) Then she and another friend dive headlong into what non-sex positive people would dub "harlotry." They dress like it's Halloween on campus and walk the corridors of a train (a train! Get it?) and competitively seduce men. The girls create a band of sexual terrorists who demonize love and chant "Mea Maxima Vulva." This has the potential to be a fascinating look at bleeding edge Feminism, but ends up feeling like an old "SCTV" sketch.
She later gets a job and LaBeouf, now grown up, is her boss. Her feelings toward him are confusing, so she's convinced it's love. She decides that the best thing to do is rebuff his advances but bed everyone else in the office. (Wimmin be crazy!)
Next, she enters a period of her life where she juggles ten different men a night, leading to a complication when one leaves his wife and family for her embrace. She sits unrepentant (but self-aware) as the jilted wife (Uma Thurman) brings her children to see "the whoring bed."
This sequence, the best in the whole film, has a bit of a spark to it because its histrionics allow it to get campy. I suspect Von Trier merely let the performances get away from him. It doesn't fit with the tone of the rest of the film. It is, frankly, too entertaining.
Skarsgard, who keeps a fly fishing hook that somewhat resembles the female sex organ over his bed, compares her actions to that of an angler. It's interesting, I suppose, but to what end? Have we learned anything about this character? About this slightly surreal world? No, because each scene is quickly shoved aside for the next chapter, where are heroine does something else that is allegedly shocking.
"Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" is the worst thing Lars Von Trier has ever associated himself with. All that's ever been annoying about his work is compounded and exaggerated here. Anyone who felt the need to pipe up with an "excuse me, but, um, that's not how it works" during the climactic capitol punishment scene in "Dancer in the Dark" ought to just stay away from this entirely. Von Trier has gotten by with his "fake it til you make it" approach thus far. He's made two of three films in his "American Trilogy" ("Dogville," "Manderlay") despite never visiting these shores and the apocalyptic science in "Melancholia" is, by his own admission, unrealistic.
But those other movies had drama. This movie's got a bunch of unknowable and unbelievable characters yapping. Yes, the ad campaign may lead you to believe this is a nonstop schtup-fest, but that is inaccurate. There are some brief and (deliberately) unsexy flashes of real body parts doing real things, but are we still shocked by this? Unsimulated sex in films isn't that new anymore – indeed, one of the best works to include it is Lars Von Trier's "The Idiots."
I'm going to watch "Vol. 2," because that's the type of guy I am. Once I start something, I like to finish. Gauging by what I've seen so far, you may want to consider avoiding the problem outright.