“Nymphomaniac: Part 1”
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark
118 Mins

Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a woman looking back on her life with deep-seated scorn, hounding for condemnation, beaten and broken. We meet her lying on the knotted facade of a cobblestone street corner, caked with dark, unexplained bruises, limp and abandoned like a dove craddling a broken wing. To the head banging tune of Rammstein‘s thumping German heavy metal, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) spots Joe crumpled under a gentle but deadly snowfall. After attempts to contact the authorities are met with threats of her fleeing the scene, he takes her home for some bed rest and a steamy cup of Earl Grey.

Upon his bed, she finds in Seligman’s comfort a private confessional for her laundry list of lustful sins. Seligman is her priest, her unwavering forgiver, her absolver of indecencies past and present. From the first chapter of her life of loose sexual morals, Seligman is compassionate and curious towards Joe. It’s a first contact moment, like an alien interviewing its first human. The only way he knows how to approach her is by relating her carnal conquests to the deft arts of fly fishing.

Seligman seeks to understand the instinctual explanations behind her erotic urges, quickly transforming into a dual supporter and therapist for Joe. As she attempts to rap off her worst transgressions,  Seligman is there with a sound interpretation of why she’s not really to blame. Their offbeat relationship is entirely unique, a perversely complex dance of savior and saved, all anchored by Gainsbourg and Skaarsgard’s wonderfully grounded pair of performances.

While Gainsbourg prattles off her top of the charts, worst of the worst list of dirty deeds like a dark fairy tale narrator, Stacy Martin guides us through the experiences firsthand. From the inklings of her sexual self-discovery to her playing a game of “who can bang the most dudes on this train ride,” Joe is a force of nature and Martin’s fearless performance paves the way for her undying depth of character. Though the older, more embittered version of Joe brews with regret and self-hatred, young Joe is full of life. She wants the whole world of men, in every shape, size and color.

Joe’s sexuality is her weapon and she wields it like a long sword. Having managed to completely divorce sex from emotional connection, as her list of suitors grow so does her heartlessness. Eventually managing entire relationships by the roll of a dice, Joe gets tangled up in a hysterical middle chapter led with brutish force by an unbound Uma Thurman. It’s been years since Thurman has put her name to something so iconic and unforgettable. And in a film stuffed with fantastic performances, hers is an implausible highlight, impossible to ignore. Her brief vignette brings humor and hardship to the table, serving them up as the same dish, indistinguishable and essential as one and the same.

In this marriage of comedy and tragedy, Trier mines the unparalleled success of Nymphomaniac. Captured through an admirable stripped down cinesphere of grubby locales and queued with a truly bipolar score, the technical aspects surrounding the film are a deft house of cards. Without cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro‘s grim but provocative pictures, the uninviting hospitality of Trier’s landscape would lose its oddly captivating appeal. In a way, Joe’s scarred humanity is a victim of circumstance, a product of his European bleakness.

Through all, Joe’s often brutal, cold mentality is accented by Trier’s uncharacteristically warm and understanding direction. For all her self-deprecation, we’re left wondering what to make of her tidal wave of remorse, especially in a patriarchal society. Would an older gentleman display such penitence? Obviously not. Is her unscrupulous vaginal record the fault of her ice queen mother? A few hours in, we haven’t yet pinpointed the source of Joe’s despondent temperament but we’re beginning to understand. And though old Joe may be depressive, Trier’s film most certainly is not.

An oddball combination for sure, it’s truly a wonder that Nymphomaniac works as well as it does, especially considering that this is only the first part of an ongoing saga (and you definitely feel the punch of a truncated story). One might have thought that nearly five hours of sexual confession (and one montage of penises) is too much. After seeing the first two hours though, all I can say is bring on part 2.


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