Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

Nymphomaniac-I-young-Joe

Movie a Day Blog never knows quite what to think of Danish director Lars von Trier. On one level, he is an accomplished and skillful film director, able to extract wonderful performances from actors who seem always a bit unsure of just what they’ve gotten themselves into.

On the other hand, von Trier is an unpleasant, if not despicable, human being, who has trumpeted his admiration for Hitler and propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl, bragged of his own legendary talent, and called actors worse names than Alfred Hitchcock ever dared to. This brings up the eternal argument about whether we judge an artist solely on the merits of his/her work, or on his/her entire gestalt, including their personal if pernicious beliefs. Welcome to the party, Woody Allen.

This becomes an important issue when trying to understand Von Trier’s goals in NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I (2013), his greatly-anticipated and then largely-ignored exploration of obsessive female sexuality featuring Charlotte Gainsborough and every part of her body. Von Trier’s hubris, never far from anything he writes and directs, is that he can explain female sexuality to Gainsborough in the movie and us in the audience through his philosophical stand-in, played by Stellan Skarsgard. The format is Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” or in this case, more like “The Decameron,” Boccaccio’s bawdy fables, only in this case Gainsborough dissects her sexual history with vividly depicted detail.

Skarsgard has a fishing, driving or skiing equivalent for every horrific act Gainsborough and her younger self, played enthusiastically by Stacy Martin, as if the two activities are somehow equivalent. On the surface, Gaiinsborough has a serious sex addiction, the focus of another recent film, THANKS FOR SHARING (2012), which I’ll write about in the coming weeks. From her earliest days, she is fascinated by her genitalia, and achieves a transcendent orgasm at a young age that she (or, rather, von Trier) returns to again and again as she recounts her sexual exploits to Skarsgard.

Seeing someone as attractive as Martin engaged in pretty much nonstop sex is not an unpleasant task, although I might guess women might tire of this much sooner than men. Unfortunately, von Trier has cast Shia LaBeouf as both the deflowerer and later petulant lover of Martin, and he’s hopeless. Playing a lower-class Englishman with a French-spelled name, it’s impossible to understand his character or his violence. He also proves intolerant of Martin’s incessant sexual adventures, with an endless variety of men that climaxes, if the word can still be used when discussing NYMPHOMANIAC I, in an unnecessary montage of all the different penises with whom Martin has become intimate.

It’s not that von Trier is just a dirty old man with a camera. He is seriously, at least in his mind, exploring what sex means to us, how it can define and dominate us, and the toll it takes on one woman cursed with the horny gene. And his artistry, especially his use of inanimate objects, mysterious glowing shots, and every detail of the female body, pays homage to his subject. I expected to hate this film, given all the negative buzz I had heard, but NYMPHOMANIAC I proved more interesting, politically and well as cinematically, than I expected. It’s nice when Lars von Trier can still surprise you.