SEX ED? Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac: Volume I.
Throughout its two volumes and four hours of explicit sexuality, masochism, philosophical debate, and self-analysis, Nymphomaniac remains the steadfast vision of a director talking to himself, and assuming you’ll be interested enough in him to listen and pay close attention.
Filmmaker Lars von Trier — seasoned fashioner of open wounds/psycho-physical provocations such as Antichrist, Melancholia, and Dancer in the Dark — splits his persona between Nymphomaniac’s two main characters. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the titular sensualist bent on self-pleasure and an independent societal rebellion, spends most of the film on a bed, bruised after an encounter that left her on her back in a dark alley. Seligman, played by Stellan Skarsgard, is the isolated, hyper-literate bookworm and autodidact who recovers her and steals her into his bedroom. As Joe relates the story of her sexual life, Seligman finds theoretical metaphors and Freudian explanations for each of its episodes, even as he sometimes questions the veracity of her relations.
Though extremely complex (and already underrated) in its structure and style, Nymphomaniac begins in the present and its frequent flashbacks move mostly chronologically. The first half of the film finds Joe’s early sexual awakening budding into obsession. Here, she is portrayed in flashback by Stacy Martin, and experiences much ecstatic, sometimes hilarious bliss (some of it with her first partner and future husband, Shia LaBeuof’s Jerome) along a few minor disruptions. The first volume’s centerpiece establishes Joe’s distance from societal norms, as a jilted wife and mother (a methodical Uma Thurman) shows her two young children the “whoring bed” that has caused their father to abandon his family. Joe silently observes this anguished, extended exchange of raw emotions about loyalty and family with the remote curiosity of an alien observer. This volume ends, for Joe, with a far more urgent tragedy that steers her, in volume two, to even more subversive means to achieve sensual pleasure.
That Nymphomaniac fails largely to titliate (in volume one) and shock (in volume two) should not be misunderstood as a failing on von Trier’s part — as it largely has been thus far — but something of a tactic or a consequence of his previous works. The title itself is a spoiler alert, and it’s unclear how much farther von Trier can take his art, which is often both undeniably feminist and undeniably hard on its female characters and actors. The director revisits notorious moments from his earlier films here: a divine intervention recalls the finale of Breaking the Waves; cosmic underpinnings refer to Melancholia; and a traumatic moment with an abandoned infant is a literal recreation of a scene from Antichrist. He also chronicles and expands his cadre of cinematic tricks, moving with tremendous fluidity between agonizing Dogme-style verité, widescreen grandeur, low-lit gloom, black-and-white, jump cuts, and scenes where musical notations and calculations are superimposed onto the screen. The result is something akin to a highlight reel, but more like the purest distillation of von Trier’s filmmaking. Nymphomaniac’s unruly structure allows the director to do whatever he wants in order to best capture the moment he’s after. (Beethoven and Rammstein are equally prominent in the soundtrack.)