For a movie that features sex and sexuality as both the action and driving force of its plot, something I can safely say is an interesting topic, it’s almost impressive how disinterested I felt over the nearly two hours I spent watching Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I stars Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an apathetic, self-diagnosed nymphomaniac found in an alleyway by a man named Seligman (Stellen Skarsgård). Seligman takes her into his conveniently decorated house and inquires about what events have transpired in her life that led her to being beaten and abandoned in a snowy alleyway. Joe matter-of-factly claims she deserves what fate has befallen her and that anyone would be inclined to agree. Seligman disagrees, and convinces her to begin her story by one of a bunch of handily placed fixtures placed about the otherwise sparse room.
Every one of the five chapters that is discussed in Volume I begins with one of the so very few items scattered about Seligman’s guest room, prompting Joe to begin her tale of a younger passage of her life, portrayed largely by Stacy Martin. A tale ends neatly, then a new object or anecdote is introduced to give Joe her perfect starting point for the next chapter. It’s all so clean and unnatural, that when you add the fact that Joe needs next to no provocation to talk about her past it makes you wonder why exactly we need the artsy symbolism of a cake fork, a song, or a fly on the wall to set the story in motion.
While Martin is on screen we don’t get a younger, rawer, more emotional take on how sex and love and life have shaped Joe into who she is, but instead a smaller, equally apathetic person. It’s not difficult to think that a nymphomaniac craves the satisfaction that comes with sex, yet is completely bored by the actual event. Curiously, not once does that satisfaction feel like the motivation considering how completely indifferent Martin is for almost the entirety of her screen-time. The only portion of the film in which young Joe feels marginally relatable is when sharing the screen with an older boy named Jerome, played by Shia LaBeouf; a would be lover had Joe not been so emotionless her entire life. LaBeouf’s presence on screen seems to bring out the only hint of emotion to Martin’s otherwise expressionless face.
Roughly an hour into Nymphomaniac, we are allowed to meet a character known only as Mrs. H — played expertly by Uma Thurman — who could have easily been just as boring as Joe herself is. Thankfully, we get to watch Thurman delicately unravel, with a dance both hilarious and horrific. However, after Thurman leaves, we get nothing out of young Joe. We receive no inkling of growth as a human being, no acknowledgement as to how her actions affect those around her, and instead we get a convenient idiom from Joe to conveniently end the story of Mrs. H and with that, the chapter.
I honestly do like how clean the environments are in the movie, how spartan everything is presented. The photography adds a nice classical look to the movie that succeeds in being both elegant and simple. The only problem is that when such neat, tidy spaces are crafted, and then something trying so hard to be inconspicuous and droll is added, you end up with something that just feels sterile, instead of outstanding.
I bring up the word convenient several times because it so easily describes the direction that this film goes. Von Trier himself seems to recognize this at a point, posing a question to the audience: isn’t this so wonderfully clean? Isn’t this completely unbelievable? Isn’t this all so convenient?
And the answer is yes. This film certainly is convenient and clean and unbelievable. But all of those elements combined leaves Nymphomaniac: Volume I manifesting as something that is trying to be clever, without actually succeeding. There certainly is something to be said in that the most interesting aspect of a movie focused on sex is just how passionless everything ends up feeling, but by the end of Volume I, discussing them seems as pointless as Joe as an individual.
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 opens in limited theatrical release on March 21, and is currently available on VOD outlets, such as FlixFling, Amazon, and other streaming marketplaces.