Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. I

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Danish enfant terrible Lars Von Trier's latest - a two-part chronicle of a self-proclaimed "Nymphomaniac" - finds the filmmaker at his most cinematically - if not necessarily, thematically - ambitious. It will be difficult to render a final verdict on the entire project until "Vol. II" drops in two weeks, but while the film does not have the pointed commentary of "Dogville" or the grandeur of Von Trier's 2011 masterpiece "Melancholia," the first half of "Nymphomaniac" has more than its share of memorable sequences and appears to be a prelude for much darker material to come.

After an uncomfortably-long fade to black following a brief title card flash scored to Rammstein, we spot the body of a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) laying in a dank alleyway where snow is slowly falling. She is discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a recluse who lives in a small apartment around the corner from the alley.

Following their semi-awkward introduction, Joe begins to tell the tale of how she arrived in the alley with a beaten and bruised face. "I'm a bad person," she says, beginning her story in childhood where she lives with her caring father (Christian Slater) and "cold bitch" mother (Connie Nielsen).

From an early age, Joe has a proclivity toward sexual activity. During one particularly memorable scene, teenage Joe (played with courage by Stacy Martin) and a friend play a game on a moving train during which they attempt to collect the most sexual conquests prior to the train's final stop. It is somewhat of a relief that Joe's sexual awakening and increasingly disturbing addiction are not linked to anything in particular - no early molestations, traumas or divorces. The picture does not try to psychoanalyze away her condition with any easy answers.

The film is told in a digressive style in that Seligman often interrupts Joe's storytelling to insert his own opinions - which, oddly enough, cover everything from fly fishing and dessert forks to Baroque music. The film's stylistic piece de resistance involves a three-way split-screen effect during which Joe talks about how, much like a piece of music, her three main lovers act together (not literally) as various instruments (not literally) that compliment one another.

As for the picture's acting tour de force, the show-stopper scene comes courtesy of Uma Thurman, who plays the jilted wife of one of Joe's lovers. In one of the film's funnier moments, Joe gives the man an ultimatum, not because she wants him all to herself, but because she believes it will scare him away. Then he shows up with his suitcase at the door. Shortly afterward, Thurman appears with her three children in tow, asking whether she can show the kids Joe's "whoring bed" and reminding them never to find themselves in similar situations. It's a scene that is equally hilarious, emotionally fraught and horrific. Thurman gives her best performance, though a brief one, in some time.

One of the key elements to Joe's character is her self-proclaimed war against love. She keeps her men at a distance with the exception of Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), to whom she lost her virginity. During a twist of fate, Joe later works for Jerome in his office and, during the picture's final sex scene, proclaims a line that will set up the second film. The only other man for whom Joe feels any affection is her father, who we see slowly wasting away in a hospital bed during a scene that is meant to be upsetting and emotional as well as provide a bit of foreshadowing, but ends up being one of the movie's weaker sequences, slowing down its momentum.

Of course, much of the writing on "Nymphomania" has focused on the numerous - and graphic - sex scenes. But it's pretty obvious - both from a visual standpoint as well as due to the concept of Joe's emotional removal from her various flings - that Von Trier does not intend for these scenes to be titillating. One particular slideshow of various, um, equipment is meant to come off as clinical.

Where "Nymphomaniac" stands in Von Trier's overall body of works remains to be seen. While I enjoyed "Vol. I" and appreciate the director's ambitious and daring approach to the material, the picture hasn't - as of yet - hit me as hard as "Melancholia," "Dogville," "Breaking the Waves" or "Dancer in the Dark." But I've yet to see "Vol. II." And even if the entire film ends up being second tier Von Trier, that's still something that comes pretty highly recommended.

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