Lars Von Trier has never walked within conventional lines as a filmmaker. A cinematic icon, Von Trier’s career has thrived on unique individuality that sets his work apart from typical Hollywood films and even his own. Von Trier develops his tales against the grain, so much so that he developed his own genre of filmmaking in 1995, Dogme 95. The genre emerged as a holistic attempt to naturally tell stories complete with its own set of rules and regulations determining how and what makes a film fall into the Dogme category. Nymphomaniac: Volume I is another spoke in the wheel of Von Trier’s ever-present evolution as a filmmaker. It’s a film that in its oddity seems like an inevitable byproduct of American society that should have come much sooner.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I feels like the type of film that should have followed the porn chic phase of the 1970s when American audiences flocked to theaters to see stories that revolved around characters engaging in explicit sex. Beginning with Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat, watching and actively discussing pornography became a fad shared by working class and high society patrons. Follow up films throughout the decade like, Debbie Does Dallas, The Devil in Miss Jones, and the impressive works of Anthony Spinelli and The Mitchell Brothers took the screens of dirty, stain-covered, back alley theaters by storm. However, with the advent of VHS and AIDS, porn chic ended, resulting in porn returning to its discreet shamefulness as Americans began to once again find guilt in admitting pleasure in sexual behavior.
He thought watching Deep Throat would bring them closer together… he realized now he was so very, very wrong.
Von Trier embraces an unabashed, peeping eye behind closed doors into the life of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). After being found beaten and lying on the cold, wet ground of an alley by Seligman, a good Samaritan walking by, Joe is brought back to his home for rest, a nice cup of tea, and company. What begins as a conversation about Seligman’s passion of fly fishing soon turns into an allegorical recount of Joe’s life as she explains to Seligman the struggles and escapades she’s endured as a nymphomaniac. For Joe, it began early when she was a toddler who discovered pleasure from her nether regions. As she matured, so did her thirst for sexual sensation, and we watch as she grows into young adulthood and the men she encounters along the way. Some are nameless faces, others have their lives ruined by her, and some are lucky enough to share a loving relationship with her; but all become catalysts of Joe’s obsessive need to be sexually fulfilled.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I is a brave, mesmerizing character study resembling a dialectic. Joe contemplates her own selfish nature and the pain she’s caused herself and others because of her addiction. While she sees her deeds as sins, Seligman attempts to convince her otherwise, engaging in dialogue that begs to find reason and positives within her actions instead of condemning them. This back and forth allows audiences the same freedom to see Joe for who and what she is and understand her instead of negatively judging her actions. We are quickly desensitized to the erotic nature of the film early on, leaving Joe’s tale as the sole focus instead of the sexual imagery. Von Tier’s mode of storytelling gives Nymphomaniac: Volume I its hypnotic affect as it plays out much like an educational prose that advances the story forward. We are introduced to concepts of the Pythagorean Theorem as well as the role of mathematical equations within the natural world. We are taught intervals of music theory through Bach which is contrasted against a split screen of Joe’s ménage a trois of lovers. There’s comparisons of Joe’s sexual prowess to techniques used in fly fishing which gets explained through edited footage of each example and super-imposed text that uses the negative space of the images to show mathematical equations and jargon.
Not the type of educating you’d expect… at all.
Von Trier’s script allows for phenomenal insight into Joe as a being and the divine moments of coincidence that follow her throughout her life, making her a believable, and at times sympathetic character. Newcomer Stacy Martin impressively embodies the young, insatiable Joe searching for a means to fulfill her appetite and loneliness. Martin captures Joe’s augmenting loneliness, unscrupulous sexuality, and gentle nature. Von Trier does wonders in making the graphic imagery of the film so frequent that it becomes normal, leaving any titillating notions of the imagery far behind. Despite watching cunnilingus and other acts of sex in full view the images are not meant to stimulate or excite viewers. Instead, they only capture moments in the life of Joe, reminding us that sex should be understood and liberating instead of ignored and shameful.
While I thoroughly enjoyed learning of Joe’s life through her words and Von Trier’s imagery, the development of other characters don’t fare as well and neither do the repercussions of her actions. Joe’s childhood best friend and right-hand (wo)man B is frequently discussed and visited throughout Nymphomaniac: Volume I. B shares Joe’s ravenous appetite for sex and pushes Joe to partake in sex challenges and even an exclusive club of sorts: an extremely intriguing aspect of the film that is glossed over. B becomes an important element of Joe’s life but lacks any true character or insight. Likewise, Joe frequently refers to her mother as a cold bitch, yet we are never shown why or understand what makes her mother so callous.
I also felt that it was rather careless of the script to showcase that Joe at one point in her life has sex with upwards of 10 men per day, yet never once worries about sexually transmitted diseases or accidental births. In fact, the emphatic lack of condoms implies that Joe partakes in unprotected sex with all of her suitors yet never worries about the real-life consequences such actions can have.
Don’t worry, it was just coconut water.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I is not the type of film of you’d want to see with your parents or on a first date. It’s unapologetically graphic in its sexuality. Yet, it’s a spellbinding tale that delivers first-hand accounts of a young nymphomaniac trying to carve her own path in the world. If you’re open enough with yourself to look past the multitude of vaginas and penises that are present, then you’ll likely enjoy Nymphomaniac: Volume I’s quirky nature, surprisingly humorous style, and its serious tale. Von Trier makes audiences the nymph, or young fly, on the wall in order to learn about Joe. The end result is rewarding and slightly empowering, prompting an interesting possibility for the future of sexuality in films.
Take a Drink: every time you see a rugelach.
Take a Drink: every time the camera arbitrarily zooms in.
Take a Drink: every time Joe orgasms during sex.
Do a Shot: every time you learn something new.