Always a filmmaker who likes to delve into the deepest recesses of the human experience Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. I is a surprisingly light affair. That’s not to imply for a moment that it doesn’t deal with a dark subject matter but, certainly in Vol. I of the two part saga, von Trier injects a healthy dose of black comedy and vibrant visuals to keep things less than his usually bleak outlook.
Found battered and bruised in a dark alley one night, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken home by kindly stranger Seligman (Stellan Skarsgrd). As Joe lies in bed she begins to tell Seligman how everything that has happened to her is no one’s fault but her own and so embarks on recounting the tale of her life-long nymphomania. From the moment she became aware of her sexuality we jump to a teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) who looses her virginity to Jerôme (Shia La Beouf), a character that will come to play an important part throughout her sexual deviances, right up to the point where she essentially sets herself up in a flat with multiple gentleman callers. All the while Seligman listens finding ways of relating Joe’s exploits to all manner of intellectual, psychological and human endeavors.
Typically for von Trier Nymphomaniac comes seeped in controversy but Vol. I for the most part is nothing that will shock. Indeed if you have seen Steve McQueen’s Shame this is a film of a much lighter tone and far less grit. Seligman’s insistence that Joe’s sexual adventures be likened to such things as fly fishing, in which a teenage Joe lures train commuters to have sex with her, adds a sense of whimsy to the film that is always intentionally forced and amusing.
Here there is none of the dark brooding imagery of von Trier’s most recent offerings of Antichrist and Melancholia. Instead Nymphomaniac is a vibrant, bright affair, bathed in pastel colours and images of nature. Only Seligman, who leads a seemingly lonely, intellectual existence, resides in a damp stained apartment, quite the opposite to the world that the self-confessed ‘bad person’ Joe occupies.
But like Joe’s story of debauchery and all things titillating there is a sense of playfulness that von Trier is having. Toying with aspect ratios and throwing in scenes of black and white while occasionally investing in Eisenstein montages, von Trier is able to bring a smile to the face when the subject matter should not really allow it. And yet it’s because of the dark nature on offer that causes and heightens that amusement.
Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, both von Trier veterans at this point, are both powerfully subdued. Skarsgard’s refusal to react with anything other than an analytical nature towards Joe’s story gives him a sense of purity, a therapist refusing to judge the deeds but rather ask why the person performed them. Gainsbourg meanwhile is typically dry, her performance calculated and quiet. La Beouf struggles under the pressure of an English accent, which is by way of Australia, American and South Africa and a hugely frustrating distraction, does at least instill Jerôme with a sense of first cocky cool before descending into brooding lust. Uma Thurman gives a wonderful cameo as the wife of one of Joe’s many lovers who screams and apologises her way through a delightfully awkward encounter. But the real star of Nymphomaniac Vol. I is Stacy Martin, her innocent, angelic demeanor a perfect foil for her whorish behaviour. Her often wide-eye looks and delicate moves perfectly filled with Gainsbourg’s soft voice-over to combine into something genuinely seductive and intimidating in equal measure.
Far less shocking than many would have you believe, Nymphomaniac Vol.I is a fascinating and often funny venture into the mind of someone empowered by their sexual desire. Like the angling analogy of Joe’s first chapter Nymphomaniac will hook and reel you in slowly with a beckoning finger.