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Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsborough, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Plot: Seligman (Skarsgard) finds a beaten woman (Gainsborough) on the street and takes her home for medical attention. There she confesses her life as a self-hating sex addict.

I couldn’t quite summon up the courage to go to the cinema and watch a movie about full-on sex with a dark room full of strangers. However, I was genuinely interested in Trier’s latest project, so when it was released on iTunes, I decided to watch it in the safety of my own home.

As the movie rolled to a start, the disappointment began to kick in. While I appreciated the movie, I just didn’t understand Von Trier as a director. I liked certain frames and beats. The first shot is shown twice, once in pitch blackness, so we appreciate the atmospheric tone of the moment with more than one of our senses. We then are treated to out of focus shots of Gainsborough’s Joe, lying, unmoving on the street, jumping to shots of Skarsgard’s, Seligman, on a shopping trip. This moment is ruined by a deafening rock song playing over the scene. I didn’t understand its place or why it was taking away from the thoughtful emptiness of the scene (which appeared to be a running theme). I have seen this done before on directors trying to be edgy, but Von Trier is leagues away from the directors making those errors in judgement. Other shots were precise and wonderful to look at, but I couldn’t make out Von Trier’s style. Most directors have a running theme to their work, but I couldn’t quite figure out Von Trier’s. There were times, when the action was roughly edited and cut up. As a beginner to the crazy world of Von Trier, I was left behind for a lot of this movie’s tricks.

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However, while the method was alien to me, the message was very clear, meaning that whatever Von Trier was up to, it partially worked. For example, while Joe tells Seligman of her sexual stories, Seligman keeps interrupting by relating her promiscuity and escapades to the theory of fishing. The obvious connection is that Joe is a fisherman, or hunter, using herself as bait to lure these men in and take advantage of them. There is an uncomfortable scene where Joe technically rapes a married man, made even more alienating when Seligman and Joe seem more interested in the theory and techniques of the rape, rather than the man whose life and marriage she may have destroyed. However, the connection between fishing and sex could also be in how Seligman and Joe view both things. To them, they are hobbies, a leisurely pastime. You could also read something into Seligman confessing that, despite his knowledge, he is not very good at fishing. We could argue Joe might be sexually confident and experienced, but she is not very good at it, in the sense that she sees it as an addiction and not a connection.

While this is definitely Von Trier’s show, the cast deserve praise for actually going as far as they did in the show. While each actor had their own ‘sex double’, they still had to take themselves to places that must have been very intimidating. Von Trier’s direction was best, when he kept the camera focused on the actors’ faces, getting every twitch and emotion from them, as they are put in different situations. Stacy Martin, for one, as the younger Joe, is a revelation, her character going to some very dark places, throughout Volume One of Nymphomaniac. She probably deserves star of the show, for breaking into the acting game with such a controversial and challenging role. Charlotte Gainsborough, the actress who plays Joe outside of the flashbacks, doesn’t get much more than a narration role at this point, but I am sure she will come into play in the second volume. Skarsgard, also, as a fairly empty character, acting as the viewer of the story, rather than a true presence in the narrative, although his outside perspective does give Nymphomaniac some of its more interesting questions, lifting it above most biopics. Everyone else does a terrific job. Shia LaBeouf is easy to buy as the jerk boyfriend, although we do not share Joe’s fascination with the character. I have a feeling that this is a purpose move on Von Trier’s part and will make sense in the second half of this story. Christian Slater is the father figure, who breaks things away from the erotic, although his scenes are just as hard to watch, with a prolonged, heart-breaking ending. The mother, played by Connie Nielsen, is kept in the shadows for the time being, but I am sure she will also play an important part later.

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Weirdly though, this movie is just as funny as it is uncomfortable. This film tackles some rough subjects that would overwhelm most movies: rape, addiction and sexual harassment. However, there is something so in-your-face and blasé about how Joe describes these tough situations that you cannot help but see the funny side. The trick is that Joe never feels defeated by these moments. She describes the awkward loss of her virginity in such a steady and monotone voice that one would be forgiven for mistaken that she was bored with the whole affair. We will jump from two girls trying to sleep with as many guys as possible in a short space of time to win a bag of sweets and cut right to Skarsgard discussing a random factoid that as little relevance to what we are watching. Maybe the extreme story we are watching is so out-of-the-ordinary that we are taken to a different state of mind. The scene where Joe is stuck in a room with a love-sick man and the family he has just abandoned is a comedy gold-mine, especially when the next ‘boyfriend’ knocks on the door. Judd Apatow would kill for an idea along those lines.

Am I looking forward to Volume Two? Admittedly, I was meant to post my Nymphomaniac review last week, in one big chunk, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to sit down for another two hours of this subject. It is a slow-burning movie and full of awkwardly tough watches. Nymphomaniac excels in moments, like Uma Thurman’s passive-aggressive breakdown and a closing sequence where Joe describes her sex life as a musical piece. However, it doesn’t quite flow like a movie should, cut up by an episodic tone, and weighed down by gloomy subjects. I am connected to the story, and while certain characters are difficult to emphasise with (Seligman, especially), I need a breather, before breaking into the next movie. However, that final frame, where Von Trier leaves us waiting for the second movie, is gloriously heart-breaking.

Final Verdict: I wouldn’t quite call myself a Von Trier fan just yet, although the first half of Nymphomaniac is an impressive display of dissecting a tough subject, free of a distracting, judgemental tone.

Three Stars

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5 thoughts on “Nympho-Maniac Vol. 1: The Review

  1. This one was decent – decent enough to get me to watch the second…. let’s see what you have to say….

  2. Pingback: THE THREE MINUTE REVIEW: NINA FOREVER (2015) | Isaacs Picture Conclusions

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