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Nymphomaniac – Vol. I (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

Nymphomaniac: Volume I


Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Clayton Nemrow, Tomas Sinclair Spencer, Katharina Rübertus, Inga Behring and Lisa Matschke.

Screenplay by Lars von Trier.

Directed by Lars von Trier.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 118 minutes. Not Rated.

Leave it to controversial director Lars von Trier to make a film called Nymphomaniac which is not the least bit sensual and not even particularly sexual – though occasionally it is quite explicit.

One brief scene, in fact, shows what appears to be full-on penetration between Shia LaBeouf and actress Stacy Martin, playing the heroine as a younger woman.  (Word is the scene was done with body doubles and computer animation, though you see LaBeouf’s face during at least part of the shot.)  But, without sounding like a prude, is that particular explicitness – which normally would only appear in a pornographic film – an artistic choice or simply an attempt to shock the audience?

The truth is, with Lars von Trier, both considerations are pretty much interchangeable.

No one can deny, and no one should, that von Trier is a visionary as far as the look and feel of his films.  He has an artistic eye that is quite astonishing.  However, as has been noticed in his previous films like Dogville and Antichrist – he’s also a bit of a pretentious, self-indulgent blow hard who is often more interested in provoking his audiences than he is in telling them stories.

Nymphomaniac – Volume I is doing nothing if it is not trying to be provocative.

However, despite the promise of illicit sexual liaisons in the promotion of the film, the actual sexual scenes are relatively scarce and are purposefully filmed in an extremely non-erotic context and mood.

So what is there to Volume I?  Talking, mostly.  Some exceedingly clever but eventually exasperating side-tracks, well filmed but out of place, to the point that von Trier appears to be deliberately denying his audience the titillation that the title promises.

An example of von Trier’s mannered and slightly busy directing style has the heroine describing her loss of virginity.  At one point she mentions that the guy flipped her over like a sack of potatoes – cue a quick smash cut from her young ass to footage of a burlap bag full of potatoes being dropped and then back to the ass.  Artistic or precious?  You decide.

In other parts, the script takes great pains and goes into great detail to compare sexual relations to such mundane subjects as fly fishing, the music of Bach, leaves falling from trees and Fibonacci number sequences.  I’m not talking about a single reference to each, I’m talking about complete long conversations and periodic returns to the points.

Yep, sexy stuff.

The film starts cryptically with a Jewish bachelor (am I being too sensitive picking up a whiff of anti-Semitism in the character?) named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) walking through a prefab back alley set and stumbling upon a woman (French actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg) who has been beaten and left to die, literally, in the gutter. 

The woman's name is Joe.  I'm sure there is some deeper meaning in giving her a man's name, but I can't will myself to find it.  She refuses when the good Samaritan offers to call her an ambulance.  Therefore he takes her home to nurse her back to health, though obviously the woman feels a deep self-hatred and does not seem to think she deserves to get better.  "I'm a bad person," she tells him repeatedly.

For some reason, Joe feels the need to let the bachelor in on a detailed background of her sexual history, mostly shown in flashback with her character played by Martin.  It also includes a couple of borderline-tasteful scenes of other actresses as Joe as an even younger girl, one brief shot as young as two years old, discovering her sexuality.

While Joe is telling her tale of sex and woe, Seligman is coming up with elaborate metaphors to prove that she isn't so bad, after all.

The story is broken up into five "chapters."  It shows Joe forthrightly losing her virginity to a local kid with a moped (LaBeouf).  Then she goes on a sexual adventure on a train with her best friend, trying to bed as many men as possible.  Later she works for LaBeouf in an office setting and sleeps with everyone at the office but him, despite the fact that she may have feelings for him.  She later causes one of her many flings to break up with his wife (a frightfully over-the top Uma Thurman) and family.  Then she tries to deal with the dementia and eventual death of her father (Christian Slater.).

Through it all, Joe shows a complete disdain for love and no particular joy in sex, either.   But then von Trier will drop in some Hallmark sentiment like "the secret ingredient in sex is love" and show that maybe he really is an old softy after all.  Or maybe he's just fucking with us.  You never really know in one of his films.

And then it just ends.  Literally, in the middle of a scene.  Unlike most two-part movies, it appears that the Nymphomaniac movies are one whole piece and when you think you're through, you're only half-way there.

Nymphomaniac - Volume I is a gorgeous, wonderfully filmed movie.  Truth is, though, I'm not exactly on pins and needles waiting to find out what happens in Volume II, which will be released just a couple of weeks after the first part.  Word is from people who have seen the whole thing, it gets better.  I would certainly hope so.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: March 21, 2014.


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