'Nymphomaniac: Volume 1' Movie Review

"Nymphomaniac: Volume 1" Movie Review: 3 Stars

by Michael Phillips

For all its credited sex doubles (eight) and digitally attached stunt genitalia, the new Lars von Trier lark "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1" is a weirdly old-fashioned affair.

If it weren't for the explicit sexual encounters, this could be an Ibsen or a Strindberg play, unclothed and unmoored from the late 19th or early 20th century.

Much of Nymphomaniac: Volume 1's running time consists of a hushed two-person play set in an apartment.

One night, in an alley, a bruised and battered woman named Joe is discovered by an older man, Seligman, who takes her back to his place and offers her some tea -- this is meant to be England, though it could be anywhere. He soon realizes he has before him a compulsively sexual character with a juicy set of life experiences to share.

"It's my fault. I'm just a bad human being," Joe says, explaining how she came to her current state.

The first of von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" films, both of which feature a lot of penetrative sex (which, by some definitions, qualifies as full-on pornography), takes Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) from her childhood to her mid-20s. We learn of the woman's close relationship with her nature-loving father (Christian Slater) and, at 15, the loss of her virginity in a hasty, chilly encounter with an older boy deemed suitably cool because he owns a moped.

Then comes the porniest of the setups in "Vol. I": The friendship between Joe and her fast friend (Sophie Kennedy Clark), who sets up a clinical competition to see who can seduce the most passengers on a single train trip. Giving and, apparently, taking her all, Stacy Martin plays the young Joe of the flashbacks.

Each time we come out of the past, Stellan Skarsgard's Seligman seems a bit stunned by the latest story. He can relate to Joe only by way of the metaphor of fly-fishing; hearing of the train competition, he compares the teenagers' trolling methods to angling for river trout.

When Joe acknowledges the challenges of lining up multiple partners in a given day or evening, von Trier openly courts comparisons not just to porn but to the more socially acceptable realms of the commercial sex comedy.

"Nymphomaniac: Vol. I" has a comic strain even at its most portentous, or pretentious. The same cannot be said of the exceptional Gainsbourg, who is both exceptional and gravely serious as a screen presence, and whose drugged, fogged-in air somehow never becomes monotonous.

Writer-director von Trier made both parts of "Nymphomaniac" in the wake of the notorious "Melancholia" premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. There, at a press conference, the filmmaker cracked jokes about sympathizing with Hitler and his own shadowy ancestry.

In "Vol. I" Seligman, inescapably a von Trier mouthpiece, talks about how his family was anti-Zionist, "which is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic," he adds, pointedly. As Joe reveals the rules and parameters of her train competition, it's as if von Trier were ticking off the list of do's and don'ts set up by the Dogme 95 school of filmmakers.

I admit to being all over the place on "Vol. I."

The filmmaker's so crafty in his technique, so brazen in his provocations, you can't rightly say this film's about anything other than its author's wormy fantasies. I'm somewhat dreading the second part of Joe's story; because von Trier has a way of being so insanely punitive toward his female characters, it wrecks his own accomplishments en route.

As Joe reacquaints herself with an old lover, played by Shia LaBeouf, "Vol. 1" phases into a sort of workplace comedy, with actress Martin a more clinical (and pathetic) version of the Barbara Stanwyck "Baby Face" archetype from the pre-Code era. How von Trier resolves the nutty, warring strains of his buggin'-out Strindberg exercise will be fascinating to witness. The most striking scene in "Vol. I" has no genitals of any sort: It's an intense and funny blowout in which one of Joe's lovers informs his wife (Uma Thurman) that he's leaving her and the kids. Suddenly Thurman and the kids are in Joe's apartment, and the spurned wife asks, sweetly: "Would it be all right if I showed the children the whoring bed?" Wonderful, messy stuff. We'll see what happens in "Vol. II."

No MPAA rating. Running time: 1:57.

"Nymphomaniac: Volume 1" is an international film that is full of drama. Shia LaBeouf and Uma Thurman star in the film about a nymphomaniac who is taken in by a older man

Nymphomaniac: Volume 1' Movie Review & Movie Trailer