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Movie Review: 'Nymphomaniac: Volume One'

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard in "Nymphomaniac: Volume One"
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard in "Nymphomaniac: Volume One"
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Writer/director Lars von Trier has been in a bit of a slump lately. After having had some success in the past with films like “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” his two latest films (“Antichrist” and “Melancholia”) showed that he hasn’t had much to offer to the cinematic community in the past few years. In fact, I think it can easily be said that “Antichrist” is one of the worst films made in the last ten years or so with its gratuitous scenes of sex and violence. “Melancholia” wasn’t quite so bad, but it did suffer heavily from its lack of plot and lax pacing. Now, aiming to be his usual controversial self, Von Trier has decided to delve straight into the subject of sex for his next feature, “Nymphomaniac,” a film that has been split into two parts in order to spare theater-goers from having to sit through all four hours of it at once, because if Von Trier has shown us anything of late, it’s that his films can be a lot to digest.

The film begins with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding a young woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the street. She has apparently been the victim of a beating, so he offers to help her and brings her back to his apartment. Here she begins to recount the story of her childhood with her father (Christian Slater) and how she became obsessed with sex as a young woman, lusting after every man who would make out with her, with a particular emphasis on the man who was her first and would eventually become her boss (Shia LaBeouf). In between parts of her story, Seligman offers commentary, comparing her addiction to his hobby of fishing. In the same vein, Joe compares some of his other hobbies, such as a book of Poe’s works and a musical selection he frequents, to other parts of her life, leading to a twisted tale of young woman who thinks of herself simply as a “bad human being.”

Not only has Von Trier divided his film into two volumes, he has also divided the volumes into chapters. However, even without it officially being split up in this fashion, the film would still have a very noticeable feeling of being episodic. As the film goes on, you hope that these various portions of her life will begin to add up to something, but unfortunately, at least as far as “Volume One” goes, they don’t add up to much of anything at all. In fact, by the end of these two hours, you’ll come away knowing two things: 1) Joe is obsessed with sex, and 2) She had a special relationship with her father.

You could make the argument that she starts to learn the difference between lust and love as she begins to have certain feelings for someone, but the idea is never explored beyond a casual mention. This is one of those concepts that I hope will be explored further in the next film because right now, it’s the best thing that this project has going for it. Von Trier seems to have started with something very basic (sex addiction) and piled a lot of superfluous filler around it, mainly a multitude of sex scenes (a few are to be expected obviously, but it pretty much becomes an obsession to fill it with as many as he can) and Seligman trying to relate her experiences to fishing.

On a similar note, the film has a kind of random feeling about it as Joe finds things around the room to relate to her story. She points out the book of Poe’s work, causing Seligman to talk about how he died, which Joe in turn relates to how her father died. Then there’s the Bach piece that Seligman describes as having three “voices” that comprise it, to which Joe compares to three of her lovers. These sections could have been integrated in a much better way instead of having the characters make the connections in such a lazy and sporadic fashion. As it is, they just come off as a couple of silly coincidences.

Returning to the episodic structure, it’s rather ironic that Joe ends up describing it so perfectly. At one point, Seligman asks her how a certain episode affected her life, to which she responds “not at all.” That’s the way the audience ends up feeling about most of these episodes of her life. We end up feeling unaffected, uninvolved, and quite indifferent, and as far as Joe is concerned, except for the episode in which her father becomes gravely ill, she seems rather unaffected as well. We’ve already seen that Von Trier has had major issues with plot and characters in the past. Sadly, it looks like they still remain a problem for him.

This first volume of “Nymphomaniac” is not all bad. The performances are admirable, particularly those of Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, and there are a handful of scenes that are genuinely funny. In particular, there’s one great scene featuring Uma Thurman as a wife who tries to shame her husband by bringing their children to Joe’s apartment so they can see “the whoring bed.” It’s another scene that doesn’t really need to be there, but I’m glad it was, because it does provide a good laugh in a film that doesn’t have much else.

Hopefully things will pick up in “Volume Two,” but I’m not going to hold my breath based on what I’ve seen so far from this first film. Thus far, it’s been clear that Von Trier doesn’t have that much material for this project, and so it ends up being a rather detrimental decision to try and stretch it out as much as he has. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that his project focuses on a sex-obsessed young woman, but when his project doesn’t have anything to say about the subject, that becomes another matter. 2/4 stars.

Starts tomorrow in limited release. Now available on Video On Demand.

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