NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL I
DIRECTOR: Lars von Trier
CAST: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgàrd, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe.
CLASSIFICATION: 18 LSVN
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
A WOMAN named Jo (Gainsbourg) lies battered and bleeding in a dingy alley. She ends up recuperating in the snug flat owned by Seligman (Skarsgàrd) and he asks her what happened.
Jo takes the scenic route. In the act of explaining who she is and how she came to be left for dead, she pores over her life as a nymphomaniac. As stories told to you by complete strangers go, it’s pretty full-on. Broken down into five chapters, Jo recounts her early, pre-pubescent brushes with sensuality and the loss of her virginity to a boy with a bike, Jerome (a suitably sleazy LeBeouf).
Later, in her teenage years and early adulthood, in the midst of a rebellion against love, Jo engages in ever more risky sport. She readily enters into a competition held on a late-night train, wagering a bag of chocolates on who can score the most sexual partners. She wins.
This young Jo (played by Martin) is at once a fragile and yet predatory animal – a delicate beauty toying with people’s emotions for her own gratification.
Overwhelmed by the roster of lovers she has corralled into a timetable, and with a callousness she later comes to regret, she leaves her emotions to the whims of the dice.
It makes for sticky situations, culminating in a confrontation with Mrs H (Thurman). The jilted wife of one of Jo’s lovers, Mrs H has brought the kids along and is determined to get her punches in. Then as her humiliated husband watches the unfolding carnage, Jo’s 7pm shows up, flowers in hand. It is Jo herself who delivers the coup de grace, telling him and the gathered party that she never really loved him.
No, she’s in it purely to get off, and Von Trier casts an unflinching, X-rated stare at Jo’s carnal greed. Men, purely interchangeable: a veritable phallic catalogue which Von Trier, playing up to the tag of provocateur, is only too delighted to expose.
The muted colours with which he decorates each scene, and the unsteady gaze of the handheld camera, accentuate Jo’s raw physicality. Martin captures this maturing Jo with scant regard for emotion. There is nothing titillating about the sex – it’s the occasional scratch for the interminable itch.
Her only brushes with her heart end in tragedy. Her father (Slater), the only constant in her life, dies with a mourning Jo at his side.
As if to make a clear distinction between the emotional and sexual journey, Von Trier films this episode in black and white.
Volume I climaxes, as it were, with the return of Jerome, with whom Jo seeks to discover her life’s missing ingredient: love.
Interspersed among all the coupling, Von Trier hints at issues covering religion, morality, sin and the symmetry of life.
His chief agent in this sexual conspiracy is Skarsgard who, far from simply playing the rapt audience, engages Gainsbourg on her world view.
Despite the erotic nature of its subject matter, not to mention the hype, Nymphomaniac Volume I is a bleak musing on the mechanics of lust, with subtle doses of black comedy.
Its mood – melancholy – mirrors that of Von Trier’s previous two films, Antichrist and Melancholia, and ends his Depression trilogy.
A master at piquing the curiosity, there is much to admire in this latest creation of his, not least, delightful star turns by Slater and Thurman.
It most certainly whets the appetite for Volume II, and Jo’s inevitable descent into Von Trier’s offbeat imagination.