Ready to disturb, intrigue, provoke, and impress us with its penetrating presentation of a dark side of human nature, the first part of Lars von Trier’s controversial work “Nymphomaniac” is surprisingly cheerful and amusing at times while working as a moody, nihilistic contemplation on its despairing subject. It announces in advance that we should brace ourselves for what it is going to show and tell, but it also playfully tantalizes us with its morbid sense of humor, and we are literally hooked by what is being dangled in front of us like a fly fishing bait.
The story starts with a beaten woman left unconscious on a gloomy alley during one night. Fortunately, a man named Seligman(Stellan Skarsgård) discovers her when he is returning to his home, and he kindly takes her to the house after she regains her consciousness. When she feels a little better as resting on the bed, Joe(Charlotte Gainsbourg) reveals that she is a nymphomaniac, and that is the beginning of their long night’s journey into day; she confides to Seligman about how ‘bad’ she has been in her whole life, and he is ready to listen to whatever she wants to tell him.
The movie moves chapter by chapter as showing how Joe was destined to her self-destructive lifestyle from the beginning. Even when she was very young, Joe already discovered what she could do with her private part. When she reaches adolescence, young Joe(Stacy Martin) and her best friend(Sophie Kennedy Clark) actively begin their sexual adventure not long after Joe loses her virginity through a young mechanic named Jerôme(Shia LaBeouf), who later becomes one of the main characters in Joe’s story through a couple of unbelievable coincidences.
As her life story being told and shown to us, the movie frequently stops and moves back to Joe and Seligman in their ponderous but weirdly interesting conversation on how her story can be interpreted. Sometimes wondering whether her story is really true or not because of its rather implausible aspects, Seligman, a well-read man filled with lots of knowledge he has absorbed from books, makes some comments on fly fishing, geometry, Fibonacci numbers, Edgar Allen Poe, and many other things during his phlegmatic musing on Joe’s life story, but Joe does not seem to be impressed or enlightened by that while maintaining her tired detachment as before.
Their interactions feel a little too monotonous, but the movie becomes as playful as Roman Polanski’s “Bitter Moon”(1992) while having a sly fun with Joe’s continuing story which seems to be gradually influenced by the ongoing feedback between Joe and Seligman. Joe’s first intercourse is remembered with the numbers of pumping motion made during Jerôme’s two penetration acts, and we are reminded that they are Fibonacci numbers. The scene in which Joe parks Jerôme’s car is literally presented with a geometric style as the camera looks down upon the car, and Joe and her best friend’s rebellious sex circle joined by other girls is musically interpreted as a sort of Satanic cabal just because they used tritone in their ritual music.
One of the most amusing moments in the movie comes from the one-upmanship game between Joe and her best friend on train. They lure their targets with a simple question about lavatory at first, but they soon go up to the higher levels because it is more fun to them. At one level, they throw a number of questions beginning with “wh” to their targets; at the other level, they disguise themselves as someone to be consoled, which turns out to be a more tempting bait for their catches. To her delight, Joe finds that guys are ready to ‘console’ her in lavatory – even when she just says that she is sad because her dear ‘dwarf hamster’ died.
Of course, the sex scenes in the movie are quite explicit, but they feel neither erotic nor stimulating even though there are many shots featuring male and female genitalia in full disclosure. Like Joe and Seligman, the movie observes its sex scenes from the distance in its clinical view, and its unflinching attitude toward its subject is maintained well as it goes wildly around black comedy and serious drama. The scene featuring Uma Thruman as an angry wife who storms into Joe’s apartment is simply hilarious while Thuman’s character is making the situation more absurd with more people in the space, and the forest scene between young Joe and Joe’s father(Christian Slater, who finally appears in a good film after many years of his inexplicable career downturn) feels warm and sensitive in contrast. Lars von Trier may be too cruel to his characters at times in many of his works, but he has some decency at least to present the part involved with Joe and her dying father in black-and-white film, and I must confess that I was relieved a lot during one particular moment involved with a soiled hospital bed.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård are well-known as von Trier’s usual collaborators, but they take a backseat in their curiously colorless performances. I guess that was an intentional acting choice; Joe is numb and empty at that point as a world-weary woman who has seen it all, and Seligman is just mildly interested in her story as trying to understand and persuade her that she is not a bad woman as she thinks, and that is all they will express through their faces as they talk and talk through their long night.
In contrast, Stacy Martin, a young Franco-English actress who made a debut with this film, has a lot more things to do in the movie, and she is very convincing while bravely hurling herself into many moments which would be quite challenging to any talented actress. She and her co-actors are ready to do anything for their director, and they bring absolute conviction to the film even when it feels silly and outrageous. Regardless of what you think about his recent odd behaviors, Shia LaBeouf gives a good performance in his scenes with Martin, and Uma Thurman virtually steals the show even though she appears only in one scene.
As self-consciously pointed out through its artificial narrative structure, “Nymphomaniac Vol. I” is more or less than a bait, or a foreplay, for what will be presented to us later, but it is a compellingly intellectual examination of sexuality and destructive impulse associated with it. I really have no idea about what’s inside Lars von Trier’s mind, but, as proved again in this challenging piece of work, he is a master provocateur who never bores us while shocking and provoking us with bold attempts to be appreciated.