Sunday, March 16, 2014


Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac Vol 1 clocks in at approximately two hours, but it would've been a much tidier 90 minutes if his characters didn't speak so bloody slowly. Nearly every cast member is guilty, but Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the teen and middle-aged version of the title character are the worst culprits. It's difficult to say who is worse - Gainsbourg narrates the story, and she does so with a halting, out of breath voice; Martin sounds as if she's weak from anemia.  I can almost imagine Lars telling them, "Slower! Speak slower! Dis iz only volume one, and I vant dis film to be 10 hours long!" 

They play Joe, a self-hating nympho who is found nearly beaten to death in an alley.  When we first see her, it looks as if she's been dropped onto the concrete from a high place. She would probably die there if not for the help of Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a kindly fellow who enjoys fishing and reading the works of Edgar Allen Poe. He asks her if she needs anything. She replies, "A cup of tea." Joking that tea isn't served in alleys, he brings her to his home where she recovers from her injuries and tells the long, sordid story of her life-long nymphomania. She starts her tale in childhood, recalling her  aloof mother and gentle, kind-hearted father. When the mother grows impatient as young Joe is masturbating in the bathroom, papa merely shrugs and says to leave the girl alone. From there, Joe takes to climbing ropes at school, enjoying what she calls "the sensation." By the time she's a teen, she's joined a sort of Hellfire club for sluts, vowing to never fall in love, but to enjoy as much sexual pleasure as possible.

You would think such a story might involve a few laughs, but there aren't many here. The film, unlike Joe's vagina, is quite dry. Seligman occasionally interrupts Joe to relate some fishing tale that he feels compliments her story, and while he's amusing in his attempts to relate, he's only slowing things down. He tries to cheer her - she feels guilty about ruining so many lives with her reckless lust - but for all his attempts to convince her she's not a bad person, she's determined to hate herself and her cock-sucking ways.

Her casual use of vulgar language and the open carnality of her story is possibly meant to shock Seligman, but he's rather worldly in his own quiet way, and although we suspect he's spent more time on fishing trips than bedding down women, he absorbs most of her story without so much as a flinch. For that matter, neither did I, for even though the film has been trumpeted as the latest incarnation of "the candid sex film," it comes off as a slightly dull, soft core porn flick you might stumble across on Showtime at a late hour on Saturday night, neither erotic enough to titillate, or interesting enough to hold your attention. Films of this type, as in mainstream films that try to push the allowable boundaries of sexuality, whether Showgirls, 9 1/2 Weeks, or Last Tango in Paris, are all dreary in the same way. The characters all seem strangely overheated and a little dumb, and their couplings come off as unintentionally funny. I think I saw actual penetration in a scene late in the film, which neither added or detracted from what is essentially a slow, overwrought movie which I suppose Von Trier would tell you isn't about sex at all, but about the impossibility of communication, or some other pompous subject that he thought could be told best by showing some dick.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is an interesting actress. She looks like a cross between Patti Smith and Aerosmith's Joe Perry, and I think there should be a biopic of Smith in her future. Gainsbourg looks the part, and Smith deserves the big screen treatment. I felt sorry for Gainsbourg in this movie, not because of the character she played, but because she's stuck with some heavy lines that not even she could sell, pretentious stuff about lust versus love, and her character's inability to feel anything. Her bruised eyes and puffy lips make her look pathetic, and there are moments when she allows herself to look humble in Seligman's little bed, as if she's a morbid Goldilocks and has finally found a comfortable spot to die. I wish the film had been about a crazy middle-aged woman and a lonely older man, without the histrionic sperm count. Gainsbourg and Skarsgård could have pulled it off beautifully. Instead, they are stuck in the film's dullest roles, as evidenced by how easily the other actors steal their scenes. Uma Thurman, for instance, is riveting as "Mrs. H," the wife of one of Joe's lovers.  The film is almost worth seeing for Thurman alone. 

Then there's Shia Labeouf as the man Joe wants to love. Shia (performing without a bag over his head) gives a surprisingly strong performance as a man who doesn't care much about Joe, but is angry that she plays head games with him. He pops up in Joe's life so many times (she lost her virginity to him years earlier) that even Seligman starts doubting the honesty of her story. (Much of her story is hard to believe, but maybe that's done on purpose, to amke the story seem more like a fable.) Christian Slater is also very good as Joe's father, especially in a death bed scene.  The good performances, though, are only place holders in between Joe's sexcapades. Even as her dad is on life support, she sneaks out for an encounter with an orderly. We get it - she's an addict, and sex for her is like stepping outside for a snort of cocaine. There's also a very long scene where she describes how one man is simply not enough, for no man is a complete lover. She appreciates what her various lovers bring - she likes the fat nerd who wants to bathe her, she likes the hairy guy who bangs her from behind, and she likes the idea of falling in love with someone, even if it goes against her basic belief that love is just lust lined with jealousy. When she begins to suspect that lust combined with love is the ideal, she begins a headlong pursuit of Shia's character, a cocky Brit who dresses nicely and seems to travel a lot. Unfortunately,  by the time she gets to him the damage has been done. She can't feel anything, mentally, emotionally, or physically. As the boys in the neighborhood used to say so indelicately, she's all used up. 

The sex scenes are surprisingly anti-septic. Joe's memories are airbrushed to the point where the bed sheets are always immaculate, there are no scars or blemishes to be seen, and even when Joe is getting pounded in a public toilet, the stall looks impossibly clean. This film was obviously not made in America. For that matter, its actual location is unclear. It was filmed in Belgium and Germany, but it seems to take place in an arid, no-man's land where people speak dully, sharing banal philosophies like high schoolers who've just gotten their first whiff of Nietzche.

No doubt you've heard that the movie is controversial, and some have angrily labeled it as porn, while others have written it off as Von Trier being his usual slightly calculating self. Von Trier has said that he finds some of the film humorous, but I think he's being coy. I think, deep in his little filmmaker's mind,  he's secretly hoping to be hailed a genius. Why else would someone make a two part movie that lasts over four hours? As a joke? To paraphrase something Norman Mailer once said, the epic is the creation of the small man. I have enjoyed some of Von Trier's work, but his movies get longer and longer, as if he's trying to hit a five run homer. He's still waiting for that pat on the head. There is, of course, the small chance that he's being perverse here, tantalizing us with a story about a sex addict's progress, and making it as un-sexy as possible, which is why he giggles and smirks during interviews. If that's the case, he's succeeded. But here's the punchline - somewhere within this messy trash heap were some characters I liked.

I will wait now for Vol. 2. It is apparently about Joe's entanglement with some criminals.  We know this because as the closing credits for Vol. 1 roll, we see clips of Vol 2, accompanied by some heavy sounding death metal. It's as if we've been watching Kill Bill all along. Perhaps that's why Von Trier laughs.

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