Enough is never enough
Emotionless sex is the least of the problems depicted in ‘Nymphomaniac: Volume I’
By Michael Nordine 03/20/2014
Lars von Trier is famous for the movies he makes and infamous for everything else he does. That his new film is called “Nymphomaniac” and more than lives up to its salacious name via a bevy of unsimulated sex scenes suggests a blurring of the line between his art and his headline-grabbing antics, which should probably surprise no one. The Danish filmmaker has polarized audiences and courted controversy wherever he’s gone — including and especially the Cannes Film Festival, where he was declared persona non grata after making what might generously be described as an ill-advised Hitler joke three years ago — but has also evinced an idiosyncratic worldview across a body of work that’s as personal as it is dispiriting.
What first bears mention about “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” is that it isn’t a standalone narrative. As with “Kill Bill” a decade ago, von Trier’s four-hour opus was made as a single film that wound up being halved by the distributor in order to address financial and attention-span concerns. That “Volume II” arrives in two short weeks only serves to underscore that neither installment is meant to stand on its own, thus making any discussion of “Volume I” a tentative and delicate affair.
Thus far, the sexual odyssey is more memorable for a few standout scenes and directorial flourishes than for its actual narrative — partly because it’s only half the story, and partly because those flourishes prevent “Volume I” from establishing a workable rhythm. It begins with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), she of the tantalizing title, being found unconscious in an alleyway by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) and continues as she shares her entire sexual history with the Good Samaritan. In the early going, Joe’s conversational partner repeatedly interrupts her fragmented recollections in order to apply an extended fishing metaphor to the tale she’s weaving; later, they jointly compare a trio of her past lovers to the three different “voices” of J.S. Bach’s “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.”
Von Trier’s insistence on imposing ready-made lenses through which to view his work is often bothersome, though the Bach parallel does make for “Volume I’s” most accomplished sequence. In a truly virtuosic display, Joe reminisces about the three men one by one as the screen splits into three columns that alternate between the inamorata in question and a close-up of an organist playing the corresponding segment of Bach’s composition. The music swells along with the visuals, and you finally understand the effect von Trier has been going for all the while. The director reminds us of his supreme talents as an image-maker at several points throughout, but only here does he do so in a way that enriches the experience rather than distracting from it.
Of the many subtextual readings von Trier conveniently spells out for us, perhaps the most resonant is addiction. Joe, who all but introduces herself to Seligman as a bad person and has clearly reached the endlessly understanding man in a state of great shame, begins to appear as a woman who knows not of moderation, who simply feels too much, and is making a subconscious attempt to channel her overwhelming emotion into the apparently unsatisfying release of sexual congress. Her self-loathing makes for an odd sort of defense mechanism, as though she doesn’t want to admit that she deserves to feel pleasure and would prefer to feel nothing at all. This condition reaches its natural conclusion late in the film when, much to her surprise, Joe yells out, “I can’t feel anything!” Too often, neither can we.