Lars Von Trier is not one to shy away from controversy, in fact I’m pretty sure he seeks it out. His films have been some of the most polarizing in the history of cinema. His recent horror, ‘Antichrist’ had some of the most hideous scenes in history, his last film ‘Melancholia’ (which I loved) was met with mixed feelings, and his latest, with an all star cast including Von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg is titled ‘Nymphomanic.’ Wonder is this one is a little tamer?
A man (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a woman (Gainsbourg) laid unconscious in the street and takes her back to his home, where she tells him the tale of her life as a young nymphomaniac (her younger self is played by newcomer Stacy Martin), and the lives she crossed through along the way, including characters acted by the likes of Shia Labeouf, Christian Slater and Uma Thurman.
When you go into a Lars Von Trier film, because of his infamy, you expect something that is going to shock you, confuse you, disgust you, or a combination of all three. In the extreme. That’s basically what I was anticipating with Nymphomaniac Part 1, and considering the marketing campaign, posters and well, just the name, I assumed it would be his most shocking yet. But here’s the thing. It really wasn’t.
The film starts off with a somewhat heavy handed comparison between sex addiction and fly fishing, but the dialogue is immediately thoughtful, and as I began to hear the story unfold that is being told by Charlotte Gainsbourg I started to get hooked. The movie follows a very slow and steady pace, but there is always something happening that is going to play to an emotion or feeling. Usually mild disgust, sorrow or sympathy. We see what starts as a relatively harmless sexual discovery turn into something really disgusting. Something that breaks apart relationships and takes over lives. While Charlotte Gainsbourg is the headliner, it is really a newcomer, Stacy Martin, who brings the story to life with her incredible performance as the younger ‘Joe.’
As the characters get weaved in and out of the story, they get limited time, but because of their caliber, they make an impact. Christian Slater is the best he’s been in a long time as our “protagonist’s” father. Uma Thurman puts in an inspired and manic performance. Shia Labeouf, as much as I don’t care for the guy, is pretty fantastic. Overall, the acting is flawless and as good as you would expect from such a list.
Visually the film is strange. There is all sorts going on, from the beginning set to the strange cuts to random (or not so random) imagery, changes in color tone, including black and white and weird lingering shots. It also doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the sex scenes, which of course we knew it wouldn’t. They aren’t something for some creepy kid to replace porn with though. It’s important to know that. They are often borderline disgusting, not in the physical sense as we’ve all seen the textbooks in biology, but in the context and plot. The acts that this girl has taken part in as a result of her addiction are often tough to stomach and tough to understand, which adds to some of the impact of the film.
All that being said, as I felt moved (for better or worse) by each scene, the narrative didn’t always seem relevant or cohesive. The thing is the film doesn’t seem to want to be confusing or difficult to follow like Melancholia. It is fairly straightforward. But sometimes I struggled to understand what it all meant. Maybe that is partly because there is also a part 2, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Some subplots, like her and her father, really were quite moving in their short screen time, but others just seemed odd and out of place. I am assuming it will all come together, and fortunately it was saved by the fact that most of the individual scenes were captivating enough that you just watch them for what they are.
I actually wanted to hate this film. I liked Melancholia, and didn’t hate Antichrist, and I haven’t got a problem with Von Trier. But I got the sense that when I saw the name of the film, that he was just trying to be controversial and explicit just to get attention. However, having seen the film, I have to admit that I actually enjoyed it. Well, enjoyed is the wrong word. It was hard to watch and to stomach, and disgusted me at times. But in the right ways for the most part. It had an impact, and I am pretty sure it has meaning and a message it wants to portray. I hope that my feeling is confirmed when I watch Part 2. A solid effort for Von Trier.