Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1

We’ve been hearing a gathering drone of news regarding Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier’s follow-up to 2011’s Melancholia. Most of the early news revolved around Von Trier’s statements about its sexual content and unsimulated scenes (not a first for the director, to be fair), and Shia Lebouf’s involvement in said unsimulated scenes. At some point, it was announced that it would be approximately 5 and a half hours long. The absurdity of many of these stories and rumors and pieces of news reached a fever pitch over a year ago, and the prospect of some crazy, explicit psychosexual odyssey from a (let’s say) singular talent like Lars Von Trier was certainly something about which to be excited, perhaps from a foundation of curiosity more than an expectation of artistic excellence. Either way, it would surely be an event. As the months passed and the announcement was made that the film would be cut into two parts, it didn’t exactly come as a surprise if the film ever wanted to even consider the idea of receiving distribution in the US. Once Magnolia (via Magnet) got on board and made the announcement that the two parts would be released in theaters one month apart from each other, as well as receiving earlier releases on Video on Demand, it became clear that this was actually happening. The product we’ve gotten is a noticeably pared down four combined hours, and Von Trier has threatened to release his 5.5 hour directors’ cut (with, in his words “more close-ups of genitalia”) at some point. Volume 1 was released on VOD yesterday, and I couldn’t help myself but check it out.

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is a film that takes its time. Von Trier is not particularly concerned with matching his pacing to what one might normally expect, and chooses to document the sexual history of our main character Joe (frequent Von Trier collaborator Charlotte Gainsbourg, played in flashback by Stacy Martin) with exhausting detail. The setup is simple enough. Long, slow shots of a street and its surrounding buildings in a rainstorm lull you into a false sense of security before Von Trier cuts to the badly beaten and unconscious Joe in the middle of the street as the punishing guitar that can only come from Rammstein shatters the serenity. Joe is brought in from the streets by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a fly fisher who offers her shelter after she refuses medical attention. In order to Seligman to understand how she got to this point in her life, Joe finds it necessary to relive her entire sexual history as a self-identifying nymphomaniac to eventually explain her current situation. What follows is an oral (well, sometimes you can’t avoid it) history of Joe’s development into a sexual being, from inauspicious beginnings as a child through early adulthood. Told predominantly in flashback intercut with shots of Seligman’s apartment, the film is heavy on voice over from both Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, offering insight on both the life of a sex addict and the life of a fisherman simultaneously.

Von Trier approaches this project with quite a bit of whimsy, perhaps as a way to contrast from the importance and seriousness of addiction. This is especially the case with Volume 1 taken on its own, as it seems all of the tragedy and violence is reserved for Volume 2. Thus, the levity that is injected into this volume feels playful and fun. Seligman’s obsession with relating Joe’s sexual appetite and mannerisms with his own quirks as a fly fisherman serves to endear him to both Joe and the audience, and Von Trier punctuates this by quick cutting to inserts of fishing lures or casting a reel into a river. It disorients, and it deflates the tension, but more importantly it plays with the conventions and expectations of the audience. Beyond the simple absurdity of cross cutting between a sex scene and an extreme close-up of threading a fishhook with bait, the approach spotlights the similarities between obsessions and addictions, and while the things we may obsess over and be addicted to might come with some degrees of taboo or social acceptance, there isn’t that much that separates us psychologically. It’s an unexpected way to broach the material, and Von Trier succeeds mightily.

The difficulty of a situation like this, where a film is artificially cleaved in two, is not lost on Nymphomaniac. After about two hours, it just ends. It does manage to end of a moment of uncertainty, a cliffhanger of sorts that does do a good job of stoking the flames for the second half, but that does not always make for an overall satisfying experience. The film is presented to us in chapters, and I would contend that for all of Von Trier’s visual trickery and inventive editing, only two of the chapters of the film resonate in any emotionally fulfilling way. The first, the Mrs. H chapter, is the clear highlight of the entire film, wherein Joe has one of her paramours obsess over her to the point of leaving his wife and family for her. Unbeknownst to Joe, the wife (Uma Thurman) comes barreling into her apartment, children in tow, to see exactly who her husband left his family for. It’s at times riotously funny (this is the origin that infamous “Would it be alright if I showed the children the whoring bed?” line from the trailer), but Thurman expertly keeps herself just on the edge of explosion for so long as the tension builds that when she finally lets loose it has the perfect timing for peak emotional devastation. It’s an excellent piece of cinema in its own right, almost a sort of sketch comedy piece dropped in the middle of this crazy experiment (something that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an episode of Upright Citizens Brigade), but Von Trier is intelligent enough to ground the emotion of the scene just right and keep it away from outward parody.

The second great sequence closes the film, and offers another example of Joe and Seligman’s comparisons despite their obvious differences. In this case, Seligman’s discussion of the construction of Bach’s use of cantus firmus (itself a phrase that sounds a little dirty regardless of what it actually means) as a three-part polyphony played on an organ by both hands and one foot, which is alternated with Joe’s story about three different lovers who inspired her and fulfilled her in different ways. Von Trier makes liberal use of split screen in this section of the film, as it builds and layers multiple metaphors on top of each other both visually and sonically. It’s a bravura sequence, and an expertly designed way to leave you wanting as the first half of the film comes to an end.

It’s tough to fully endorse the first half of Nymphomaniac on its own. Even with the two fantastic sequences, and some great performance work from nearly the entire cast (and at least passable work from LeBeouf, which I’ll take), the film doesn’t particularly work without any emotional catharsis that is sure to come from hours three and four. There are definitely good and worthy moments here, and Von Trier’s technical filmmaking continues to impress and inspire, but taken by itself the first volume feels unfinished (probably because it is). I am, however, very much looking forward to the second part, which will be released on demand in about two weeks in the US, and I would recommend to those interested in experiencing Nymphomaniac to wait until both parts are available for rental and to make a night of it.