Updated with thoughts on Volume II. This is one film and my overall review should be seen as such.
Nymphomaniac is structured as a series of flashbacks being told by Joe, who decides to tell her life story to her curious savior, Seligman, from an unknown back alley assault. This first volume of Joe’s tale consists of 5 chapters and is a story of sexual discovery and how she deals with love; in that order. The story doesn’t shy away from the explicit imagery that has been hyped around it, but the sex never feels gratuitous and always makes sense to the story.Getting hung up on the sex will only lead to disappointment, as the film’s characters are what makes Nymphomaniac so engaging. Young Joe is the focus in the chapters of this volume and Trier has created a very strong female character and we have a whole other film to spend with her.
Newcomer Stacy Martin stars as Young Joe and she comes at the role with absolutely zero fear. Its not just the sex, which she shows no hesitance towards, but she shows the emotional depth of a veteran actor. The film asks her for something different from chapter to chapter and Martin easily meets the call. On top of all that, Martin is able to handle the dark sense of humor in the film. She can make you laugh in one scene and crush you with sadness the next. Martin can pull a chair up to the table with Blue is the Warmest Color’s Adèle Exarchopoulos, as another phenomenally talented debut from a very young star.
Each chapter is connected to the present day of the film by something that jogs Joe’s memory and Trier weaves the connections into the past wonderfully. No how matter how big or small a part the connection plays, Trier makes it work. Even more intriguing is the playfulness that he has with the potential for Joe being an unreliable narrator through these devices. Sometimes the details are too convenient and both Seligman and the viewer feel the need to call Keyser Söze on her.
The five chapters are:
“The Compleat Angler” – an often funny look at Joe’s sexual and predatorial youth through the lens of Seligman’s knowledge of fly fishing.
“Jerôme” – Joe’s esmaculation of, falling for and loss of her first lover in her self proclaimed only encounter with the idea of love.
“Mrs. H” – an isolated incident that examines the destruction her sexuality causes around her and how unaffected she is by it.
“Delirium” – a tragic look at the delirious death of Joe’s father and how she copes with it.
“The Little Organ School” – three chords of her story that when told together can tell you just about everything you need to know about her.
Each segment is excellent in its own way, but the short film structure of “Mrs. H”, and the incredible performance by Uma Thurman as an abandoned wife trying to burn down everything around her, probably makes it my favorite. How can this subject matter be so hilarious? I don’t know, but Trier dances on that line so God damn well, slowly building up the humor before it becomes too much and sadness over takes it all in the chapter’s final moments. Thurman is amazing in her brief screen time, parading around her children and playing her emotions with anguish, all while understanding the growing hilarity of her escalation. The editing in the scene also works marvels with the tone, as each cut seems to bring a bigger and better laugh until it isn’t funny any more. Thurman and “Mrs. H” are worth the price of admission alone.
It is interesting that Volume I of the film doesn’t really support Joe’s position of self loathing, as the viewer is right along with Seligman in not wanting to condemn her for her sins. Still, Charlotte Gainsbourg is great as or narrator Joe and the pain she is carrying is surely going to be exposed in the back half of the film. Stellan Skarsgård is gentle and sweet as Seligman, and I really appreciate the humor and sense of character he and Trier establish for him. The comparisons and philosophizing Seligman makes might seem a bit contrived, but it helps you and Joe get comfortable with him. We don’t feel like he is threatening or perversely enjoying Joe’s story, he just simply wants to know it. Christian Slater comes out of nowhere to deliver his best performance in ages as Joe’s father and Shia LaBeouf is completely convincing and alluring as Joe’s Jerôme. Sophie Kennedy Clark also deserves mention for being such a great partner in crime with Martin and I wonder if there is more between the two in the five and a half hour version of the film? I want to see it.
Lars von Trier’s writing/direction can’t go without further mention, as his balance of tone is only a piece of his great work here. The on screen text, the choice and insertion of stock footage, dream sequences, the use of split screen, perfect music cues, beautiful compositions, Trier’s craft is nearly impeccable here. His direction is also so playful and surprising as he plays off our expectations he inflated in the pre-release of the film. That first Joe flashback let’s us know what we are in for, as we watch her and B as young girls in a bathroom. It builds tension on our expectations, as you worry how far Trier is going to go with that bath shower head, only to subvert our preconceived notions with a relieving laugh that comforts us thatvhe isn’t that depraved. Trier, lightly, admonishes us for buying into the image he has calculated for himself, it’s genius and hilarious.
***Updates with thoughts of film as whole start here.***
Nymphomaniac: Volume 2 continues everything from the first volume and makes it perfectly clear that this is just one big film that didn’t need to be broken up at all. But enough about that. If you enjoyed the first half of the film you will surely be just as engaged with the back half as well. The film mixes humor and character development just as well, while getting a bit darker as we catch up on Joe’s story to the present.
Broken up into only three chapters this time out, the first finds Joe trying to rediscover that feeling she proclaims losing at the end of Volume 1. The lengths at which she is willing to go to rediscover pleasure is a painful experience and Trier builds up to every moment with tense anticipation. Jamie Bell really shines in this sequence as he coldly and methodically runs Joe through as masochistic ringer.
The second chapter turns an eye on the slut shaming element of our culture as Joe tries to reconcile her nymphomania and realizes that maybe she shouldn’t have to. Volume 2 makes clear that Trier is interested in putting Joe through an experience that wouldn’t be given a second look if a man was in her role, making our titular character’s androgynous name resonate even more so in the back half of the film. Why can a guy fuck as many people as he wants in a film/society and nobody cares, but if a woman does it we think she has a problem. This isn’t a fresh or new revelation, but it is a double standard that still certainly deserves to be addressed.
The final chapter of Volume 2 sees Joe as a debt collecting badass that uses her sexual history to humiliate and humble her client’s outstanding debtors into paying back their funds. This sequence has one of the best music cues ever, features the conclusion of Joe and Jerôme’s relationship and an extended monologue that will maybe make you sympathize with a pedophile that never acts out on their desires. Compelling and thought provoking stuff from Trier.
Nymphomaniac is a fantastic experience. I only want more of it and luckily more is coming. Stacy Martin is excellent as the focal point of this captivating character study and Lars von Trier shows off every piece of his accomplished skill set. Another early entry for one of the year’s best, I can’t wait to see where Volume II takes us.
Nymphomaniac is an A