Friday, March 21, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW Nymphomaniac Vol. 1
A Mathematical Hypotenuse Of Orgasm, Or Something

A screenshot from Lars Von Trier's four-hour epic "Nymphomaniac", which is being released in two parts.

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, March 21, 2014

"The secret ingredient of sex is love," whispers a friend to young Joe (Stacy Martin, excellent here) during Lars Von Trier's epic "Nymphomaniac", a psychosexual drama released in two parts.  "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" reveals this whisper as a kind of nagging Achilles heel, a countervailing force to the heavily mathematical sex analysis of present-day Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has been left for dead in a back alley (cruel metaphor for a botched abortion?) at the start of the film.  Rescued as if a beaten stray pussy cat (more Von Trier psychoanalysis?) by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who may be connected to Joe's beating, Joe insists on avoiding hospital to treat her wounds.  Does she lack health insurance?  Does she "deserve" her punishment?

As with many of Mr. Von Trier's films almost every scene of "Nymphomaniac" appears designed to tweak you.  As Joe tells the avuncular Seligman about her sexual history in multi-chaptered bedtime story-like fashion, images of nature, felines, insects and other assorted free-associational moments flood the screen.  Joe is convinced her sexual prowess, boldness and alacrity with men comes not from the healthy relationship with her father (Christian Slater) but from a need to let go and explore.  Joe is mesmerized by Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who is the only man aside from her father she has truly loved.  Jerôme, a cold, indifferent sort, is a source of endless confounding mystery to Joe, a somewhat emotionally repressed (if not abused) figure herself.

"Nymphomaniac", an interesting and bewildering sexual odyssey through a female lens, appears to be based loosely on the Swedish film "Anita", which tenders very similar subject matter.  Mr. Skarsgard starred in the 1973 film, which details a teenage girl who recalls her obsession with sex and self-destruction.  Mr. Skarsgard is a more active participant in "Anita", involved in a symbiotic relationship with the title character.  Mr. Von Trier, who wrote "Nymphomaniac", may have utilized "Anita", about a nymphet, as one of his influences.  The Danish director's film, however, is more clinical and sensory, if not sensual.  The "Nymphomaniac" anthem, Rammstein's hard metal song, "Führe Mich" ("Guide Me"), is addicting, an aural juggernaut out of place yet like a primal engine representing the hard-wired animalistic beat of sex in Mr. Von Trier's sometimes persuasive and always thought-provoking dissertation.

There's serenity to Joe as she recalls her nymphomania but there's immense pretentiousness by Mr. Von Trier in the way he frames these coolly melancholic stories.  The pretension is glimpsed through the Seligman character, who engages in a professorial discourse with Joe as if biding his time before a lasciviously pounce on his fantasy student.  Since Seligman is a filter between the audience and Joe, any daring aspects of "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" are diffused.  Alas, Joe isn't talking directly to us, though she should be, and Mr. Von Trier, who Joe may be referring to as she recalls a balding, dutiful man who does whatever she asks him to sexually, most certainly is. 

There's a fear of love, and a mutilation and repudiation of love in all of Mr. Von Trier's work, and his own troubled personal background is a huge marker for the power and relentlessness of his characters' refutations and sometimes nihilistic or anti-social ways.  "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" isn't soft-porn as much as it is sexual anarchy, with the female protagonist as big bad soft-core wolf in sheep's clothing taking the reins of the narrative without compromise.  If the women in "Breaking The Waves", "Dogville", "Manderlay", "Dancer In The Dark", "Anti-Christ" and "Melancholia" appeared helpless or doomed, the woman of "Nymphomaniac" celebrates in a droll way her feast over men but she feels somewhat regretful and pained. 

Ms. Gainsbourg, Mr. Von Trier's muse of the moment, is good here as always, the one actress who lends authenticity to the director's chaos and alchemy, to the point where her character Joe can look ridiculous but remain enormously credible.  It's a complex undertaking, and while the narrative has her Joe mostly bedridden (and deliberately so), her pallid expressions highlight both the absurdity and full-throated commitment of going the distance for such a brilliant, perceptive and iconoclastic director.

Mr. Von Trier, who never makes it easy on women in his films (or his audiences), sincerely explores sexuality or sexual obsession from the point of view of one woman, and much of "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" is engaging and intriguing, as well as frustrating and indulgent.  Talking about sex, intellectualizing about it, and doing it, involve aspects of one or each of those feelings, and Mr. Von Trier place holds the audience as observer, voyeur and captive of Joe's exploits. 

Sometimes I felt as if I was watching a Calvin Klein underwear commercial only an orgasmic one.  Other times "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" plays like an American tragicomedy, a sex-shaming of men and parody of guilt-ridden characters, especially in a scene involving one man Young Joe has been with.  The man is married to Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman), who volcanically erupts in a way not unlike you'd see in an Ingmar Bergman film.  The scene plays awkwardly and very funny.

"Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" isn't sexy.  I don't think it's meant to be.  Most films about sex aren't.  Rather, Mr. Von Trier's film is about the architecture and strategy of sex, from Joe's point of view, with all its calculations, equations, angles and positions -- a cerebral method of a woman's approach to sex, or at least, this woman's approach.  The film shows us the artifacts of sex -- vaginas, penises, bodily fluids, orgasms -- anatomical and objectified things and elements borrowed from a biology and reproduction or animal wildlife class, things that Mr. Von Trier may posit are shallow representations and ingredients of, yet integral to, the act of sex.  But what lies behind and beyond those representations?  Isn't it love?  Or just plain narcissism?  Joe appears to represent the latter. 

Joe fights love by using sex.  She uses sex for pleasure but also defensively, as a mask from the closeness she has with her father.  Scenes with Joe's father are just as faithfully and achingly rendered as scenes involving bodily fluids, including a key scene showing Young Joe sexually excited.  Mr. Von Trier uses nature as a statement about the inevitable position of sex as a predatory act, not necessarily a loving one.  It's a conundrum and discussion I was enthralled by, as well as by the way Mr. Von Trier handles and addresses it.  Joe's self-satisfaction with sex invites a measure of conflict within herself as she swears that love is something divorced from sex.  The truth, at least in that careful whisper to Young Joe, and those nagging feelings about Jerome that won't go away, suggests otherwise.

Also with: Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen.

"Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  It contains graphic male and female full frontal nudity, strong explicit sexual content and language.  The film is in black and white and color.  The film's running time is one hour and 56 minutes.  Note: "Nymphomaniac Vol. 2" will be released in the U.S. on April 4th and is currently on demand, as is Vol. 1.

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