Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac: Volume I (the first of a two part conclusion to his depression trilogy) opens with a disclaimer. It states that what follows is censored and abridged version of the film edited with the director’s consent.
You’d be forgiven for not thinking that was the case when the film is over, because it certainly doesn’t pull any of its punches. What’s much more surprising is the fact that it’s nowhere near as dark as the majority of Trier’s oeuvre, as well as how funny it turns out to be. Is this what a Lars von Trier comedy looks like?
The premise is simple: Seligman (Stellan Skårsgard), an innocuous older man, finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac and self-proclaimed bad person, bruised and incapacitated in a snowy alley and invites her home. He convinces her to tell him her story and so an odyssey of sexual awakening begins. The film takes us from her adolescence through to her twenties without much, if any, of the miserable darkness that Trier is largely known for. Sure, it’s provocative but it’s also something that could be called a semblance of heartwarming due to a central message of the importance of love.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård are the shining core of the film. Gainsbourg is extremely matter of fact as she tells Joe’s story and proclaims herself to be a bad person. She seems filled with self loathing which carries with it an underlying sense of dread, that little thing nagging at you which leaves you thinking that some terrible thing might happen at any moment, with her melancholic narration not helping. This is then neatly juxtaposed against how funny the film turns out to be.
It’s not laugh-a-minute but it’s still pretty funny. Trier often uses cutaways to explain certain things or situations in almost sitcom-esque fashion and if you’d add a laugh track we’d probably have the most explicit sitcom ever. Skarsgård is great as he gets excited about the ideas at play in Joe’s story and shows supreme interest in the story she’s telling, to the point where his enthusiasm actually influences how she tells it.
This is a main source of humor as Trier draws attention to the storytelling and the format, drawing over the screen and having Skarsgård introduce concepts that then serve to shape the storytelling of each chapter; it’s extremely playful with a hilarious fishing allegory serving as the frame for a sex hunt on a train that Joe goes on with her friend and polyphony, with excellent use of split screen, which is used to explain how three different relationships complete Joe sexually.
Most of the other actors do great work as well. Stacy Martin, playing the younger version of Joe, emulates Gainsbourg pretty much perfectly. She’s thoroughly convincing as someone that would grow up to be the older Joe. Uma Thurman shows up for one extended scene for a memorable meltdown, quite possibly the film’s best scene, and Sophie Kennedy Clark (from Philomena) does good work as Joe’s like minded friend.
What sticks out most in the film, acting wise, is the accent work by certain actors. Though never expressly stated the film seems to take place in some semblance of Britain, not that it’s all that important, but Shia LaBeouf‘s accent isn’t anything that’s spoken in the isles or anything that his fellow actors are using either. His accent oscillates wildly between kind-of-English and kinda-of-Australian, with a handful of stops in kind-of-New Zealand. It’s extremely distracting from his performance, which to be fair is fairly anonymous either way.
What Christian Slater is going for is simply perplexing though, his weird inflection robbing scenes of warmth between Joe and her father of much of their resonance. To his credit, he has a good frightened breakdown near the end of the film which is highly effective.
Of course, you can’t really discuss the film without bringing up the nudity and sex. The nudity itself is organic to the story of sex that Trier is trying to tell. It’s full frontal for both sexes and features flashes of penetration. In a roundabout way it’s not really that gratuitous, even though it is explicit. Well, maybe except for the slideshow of closeups of a couple dozen penises. Trier seems determined to even out the female/male nudity ratio, a noble quest.
Nymphomaniac is an exceedingly self referential film, highlighting its form, as well as a quotational one, to Trier himself, Tarkovsky and a number of other films and filmmakers. There’s a reused shot from Trier’s television series Riget and instances of musical quotation. It gives of a sense that, rather ironically, Trier is actually having a lot of fun with the final entry in the depression trilogy, something that couldn’t be said of Antichrist and Melancholia, even though both are excellent films.
So where does all this land on the Lars von Trier spectrum of quality? Nymphomaniac: Volume I isn’t his best film but it’s definitely his most enjoyable in over a decade. At the very least it won’t crush your soul. He’s clearly saving that for Volume II, which this film definitely leaves you wanting to see.
The Nude: Christian Slater’s butt flapping out of a hospital gown
The Nuder: Stacy Martin’s Young Joe casually sitting naked in her kitchen post-couitus
The Nudest: The 24 penises in that lovely little slideshow