Review: ‘Nymphomaniac Vol.1’ 9.4.14

Those of you that know me well enough know that I have a deep respect and admiration for Lars Von Trier. As someone who considers themselves to be a student of film, there is no other director (except maybe Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch) that has had as much of an influence on my developing taste in film particularly during that of my more formative years. I remember clearly, it being well over a decade now, when I first saw LVT’s “Europa” (1991). The opening tracking shot of a murky train track with a brilliant voice over narration by Max Von Syndow telling the viewer “to sit back, relax, and let the images take over”, which enduced some kind of a trance; was my first introduction to this writer director. Much like David Lynch and Gasper Noe, LVT seems to be much more interested in entering the viewer’s subconsicous from the get go than anything else. What has been the focus of so much controversy over the years is what LVT’s intentions are once he gets in there. As Bjork, the famous Icelandic singer who worked on one his films (2000’s brilliant “Dancer in the Dark”) said – “it’s almost as if there’s this sort of psychological robbery or robbery of the soul that takes place when working on and seeing a LVT film”. In fact, she had such an awful experience working with him that she vowed never to act in any other film again (ironically though, she won the best actress award at Cannes for her spellbinding debut performance). LVT, while maybe difficult to work with, has an uncanny gift for bringing out great performances in actresses. Emily Watson’s performance in 1996’s “Breaking The Waves” and Nicole Kidman’s in 2004’s “Dogville” are two outstanding performances in not only what are 2 of my favorite LTV films, but 2 of my favorite films of all time. I think what Bjork was quoted as saying is indicative of a lot of LVT films. He goes places and shows you things that you have such an immense emotional reaction to, that an exercise in one of his films can be very off putting to some. With that said, I’ve always found his boundary pushing, penchant for the taboo, and challenging material; specifically emotionally, to be his biggest strong points. He is a provocateur who bullies his audience. Again, a criticism that many people have of him that I just don’t happen to share. I want to be shocked, perturbed, angry, and completely emotionally and psychologically devastasted when watching a LVT film. And believe me I’m not a masochist or sadist, nor am I a misogynist (which LVT is often referred to as). I just like films that explore the dark side of the human condition that bring me to places where there’s no pre-established contract set up. Which is why I gravitate to the type of material and stories in which Von Trier often chooses to write about.

When I first heard that LVT had announced to Stellan Skarsgard (an often LVT collaborater who appears in the film) that his plan after 2011’s mostly superb, end of the apocalypse art film – “Melancholia”, was to write and direct a 5-hour porno movie. My first reaction was one of intrigue, but my second and most important was, how the heck was he going to pull it off. Then, after being screened throughout the festival circuit last year and garnering mostly positive praise. I once again grew a sense of anticipation and excitment that I often times do with a lot of LVT films. Well, after some procrastination I finally got around to watching Vol.1 last night. In typical LVT fashion it was another addition to his ouevre of ever growing, boundary pushing, esoteric films. A loose synopsis is that it follows the sexual exploits of Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, another LVT frequent collaborater) from the age of 2 through her teenage and young adult years, as she recites them in a series of flashbacks to Skarsgard, who just happens to help her at the start of the film when she is most in need. The film uses this tale of her sexual odyssey to explore underlying themes such as temptation, jealousy, relationship power dynamics, male vs. female ego, control, obsession, and love vs. lust. There is a fair amount of explicit sex yes. But one can probably induce that already by the title of the film. What’s important to point out is there is nothing stimulating about the sex we see on screen at all. LTV uses this concept to explore sex as an addiction, something we use for selfish reasons, or are constant need to be in control, and as an ultimately   unsatisfying way of relieving all of the tension we build up. This is all effective and done well. However, while it was intellectually stimulating, it didn’t really strike a chord for me emotionally or psychologically that some of LVT’s prior work has. It all felt very topical in its examination. It felt like he could have gone further and probed deeper into the material (which I hope is the case with Vol.2). The script also had its flaws, in that I found the constant metaphors (and there were far too many of them) and symbolism to be a bit unecessary and self indulgent. I feel like had LVT made things a bit more subtle and not so obtrusive, I probably would have liked the film quite a bit more. Still, and I’ll refer to Von Trier here as I often refer to the films of Woody Allen. A sub par or mediocre LVT film, as with Allen, is still better than 90% of most other directors better works. Or better yet, certainly more worthwhile than whatever’s showing this week at your local IMAX theater.

Grade: B-