Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II
At last Lars von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” has come to a close. First, the infamous Antichrist, then the underrated Melancholia, and now Nymphomaniac – a story so explicit, it had to be split into two volumes.
Nymphomaniac is the epic of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed well, nymphomaniac, whose addiction has spun entirely out of control. She is found by a gentleman named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), to whom she recants her tantalizing tale. Fortunately for yours truly, both volumes have been released for rental on iTunes, so I was able to watch both parts sequentially. Unfortunately for everyone else, spoilers abound.
The first volume establishes Joe’s self-discovery and self-proclaimed loss of innocence. Pushing her towards redemption, Seligman challenges many of Joe’s constructs and muses her tale with various digressions. This provides a unique story-telling experience for the audience, filled with metaphors and allegory – a technique not unfamiliar to von Trier’s other works. So if you were worried that you wouldn’t get enough abrupt cuts and odd cutaways, no need.
Speaking of von Trier tropes, Volume I does not hesitate to remind audiences of his crippling mommy issues. It is quickly established that not only is mostly everyone a terrible person in this film (except maybe Joe’s dad, good job Christian Slater), but the women of Volume I are the worst. However, it would be inappropriate to dwell on a gender study so soon, so we’ll save that for later.
Quite frankly, Volume I establishes a fantastic mix of eroticism, intensity, and in a word, emptiness. Joe has established that in her youth, her sole purpose was to rebel against love, which in her mind is only a combination of lust and jealousy. However, she’s questioning her beliefs once she realizes that she’s become obsessed with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf – save your boo’s, he’s not that bad in this), the boy she had lost her virginity to years before.
The commentary on relationships and love games was most refreshing. Personally, I felt like I could connect with the fact that Nymphomaniac calls out the cliched bullshit behind most love stories. Instead we’re presented with something tantalizing, confusing, and at times just plain ugly.
When Jerôme suddenly leaves her life unexpectedly, Joe copes the only way she knows how, by hooking up with enough men to lose count. Of course, this behavior doesn’t come without a price, as she learns when she meets a lover’s wife, Mrs. H (Uma Thurman).
It is clear that Mrs. H’s role was to wake Joe up from her somnambulistic state – and Thurman’s performance was enough to do the same for the audience. As the very personification of desperation and despair (but still humorously empathetic), Thurman’s electric. She had maybe five or ten minutes of screen-time tops, but she was completely memorable.
Volume I sets an ideal stage for the rest of Joe’s story – a roller coaster of erotic ups and downs, ecstasy and disgust. Just when things seem to go so well, a dramatic turn is destined to follow. Enter –
Once Joe discovers she needs a harder fix, it is clear that she has descended into her own personal Inferno of kinks and deprecation. That is, until she can put her skills to good use. Volume II establishes a new breed of hunger. When Joe must rekindle her spark, so to speak, she soon delves into the seedy underworld of sadomasochism, while her family is forced to pay the price (almost getting a little too close to Antichrist). But soon with therapy and a new job, Joe finds herself more empowered than ever – an indestructible force to be reckoned with. That is, until she falls in love again.
I feel that Volume II focuses more on a matured dichotomy – that line between being controlled and being in control – expression and oppression. Throughout this chapter Joe becomes more comfortable with herself, while Seligman becomes increasingly, and more subtly, insidious. This duality cannot be more appropriate, considering the nature of addiction itself. More so, the story ends with the notion that the traumas in Joe’s life are destined to continue, based on choice alone.
Oh right, the gender stuff.
In the beginning, Joe admits that her only real sin was to desire more from the sunset. Seligman notes that desire is natural, and as a woman, she’s really not a bad person, making a point that if Joe were actually a man, most of her adventures would hardly be unusual. But because she is a woman, her actions have caused her more guilt and hardship than it would a man, presumably.
There is congruent criticism on male sexuality as well, considering the how far men such as Jerôme and K (Jamie Bell) are willing to go in order to not be belittled by a woman who clearly has the upper-hand – not to mention N (Kookie – seriously, that’s the guy’s name on IMDB) and his brother, two men who are want to have sex with the same woman at once, but decide not to because when their dicks accidentally touch it’s icky.
I could probably go on about the gender dynamics in this feature, but maybe that’s best for another time.
For those who believe that Lars von Trier has simply made an epic porno, you are grossly mistaken. Nymphomaniac is an erotic drama about addiction that pushes every taboo to its limit, and it is damn proud of it. Sometimes hard to watch and even more difficult to look away, Nymphomaniac will certainly leave you something to think about.
Final Grade: A