In a nameless city, a woman is found semi-conscious in a back alley by an elderly bachelor who offers to help by calling an ambulance. She refuses. “I take it you don’t want me to call the police either?”, he muses. He brings her back to his apartment for tea and milk and some cake. He is a gentleman; he offers up his bed and pyjamas too. As curiosity goes, he sits by the bed and asks how she ended up in that alley, bloodied, bruised, and seemingly left for dead. “You wouldn’t understand”, she says, and then continues, “I discovered my cunt as a 2-year old”.
These words are important, because they set the tone for the rest of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, a two-volume collection about the life of a woman who found sex at an early age and continued to explore its many facets right up to the point where Volume I begins. She is a harsh woman. Unwanted by society and ultimately discarded by herself. She knows her needs, she acts on them, and then she self-reflects. What’s key here is that her self-relfections never change the person she is.
But what Nymphomaniac Volume I is really about is a woman who loves sex and a bachelor who loves fishing, and they use their experiences to try to understand the other. The woman, Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult and Stacy Martin as a teen), only speaks in terms of who she’s met, how she’s had sex with them, and how she’s never allowed sex to complicate her life. At one point she used to have 7 or 8 sexual partners a night — imagine the bed springs. One of the partners mistakes the sex for love and leaves his family for her. “How did that make you feel?”, the bachelor asks. “I felt nothing”, she replies, blank.
The bachelor is Seligman, played by Stellan Skarsgård as a man who finds intrigue in the slightest utterance. Skarsgård has this uncanny ability to force seriousness from his face, as if you could tell him the funniest joke and he wouldn’t get it. But then he’d come back some time later with the revelation. He uses fishing as a medium to understand Joe’s explicit tales. He talks long and hard about the different kinds of bait, and how giving the slightest tug to your fishing line could make the difference between catching something and going hungry. Joe employs a similar philosophy to sex. The movie traces, via flashback, her young days with her father (Christian Slater), who used to teach her about the trees. As she gets older she treats nymphomania as a game. There is an extended sequence aboard a train where she and her best friend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) compete for a bag of chocolates by seeing who can alight having had sex with the most men. The game is nasty and cruel, but then all the men on the train also seem nasty and cruel, as if the journey for them can only end in orgasm.
The movie is divided into five chapters: The Compleat Angler, Jerôme, Mrs. H, Delirium, and The Little Organ School. Not all five deal with sex, but all five feature sex in one form or another. There is a man Joe meets in her teens. His name is Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), and he takes her virginity — you will remember the numbers 3 and 5 — in a crude and awkward manner. You know what they say about your first partner being your true love? Joe and Jerôme remain connected throughout the movie, even when they’re apart. Their relationship starts off complicated and climaxes with complications.
The last chapter is Von Trier’s most inspired. I shall not reveal too much, but I was surprised to see sex sitting on the same plane as music. It acts as a crescendo of sorts, if you can call any part of a Von Trier film a “crescendo”.
Volume I is not a difficult movie to sit through, nor does it flow with the ease of the tide. It lingers on our taste buds just long enough for us to identify the texture of the characters and their stories, and then it drifts off into a shot of nature, or sex. Joe and Seligman speak philosophically, using words and phrases to make themselves seem intellectual. “Love is simply lust with jealousy attached”, Joe says. Doe she know for sure?
Von Trier is a provocateur. He teases his audience with demanding thoughts and images and leaves them dangling for the resolution, which most of the time is distorted in the personal issues of his pathetic characters. Think back to Antichrist or Melancholia, both of which have been linked thematically to Nymphomaniac. Were the characters there not deeply pathetic? Did they ever reach resolutions? Here we have Joe lying beaten and scarred in a stranger’s bed. She’s recounting her story from the beginning. Volume II better have her resolution.
Best Moment | The Little Organ School.
Worst Moment | Any scene with Shia LaBeouf.