Intellectual without being pretentious, the messages it stimulates don’t suffer from delusions of grandeur.
Nymphomaniac Volume 1
You know a Lars Von Trier movie is good when it feels like you’ve just spent two educationally arousing hours in the university for the cinematically gifted. As soon as Von Trier announced that his next movie was going to be called Nymphomaniac, the general murmur from everyone was “there goes Lars again!” When he announced that it will be centred around one woman’s rampant sexual experiences with hundreds of partners and that it will be his longest movie ever, the general consensus was “that crazy Lars just doesn’t stop!” But what no one expected was that Von Trier was on his way to making his most accessible movie to date, while still managing to push envelopes, burn bridges, laugh in the face of etiquette and brandish his middle finger to the foppishness of society’s flimsy facade.
After a prolonged darkness during which nothing but the organic sound of water drops on metal is heard, a bloody woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is revealed to be lying on the cobblestones. In the first of many outbursts of ingenuity, sounds of Rammstein barge in on the soundtrack, as if uninvited, while Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) quietly buys his milk and notices the unconscious woman in the alley. She prefers a cup of tea with milk over an ambulance and the police, so Seligman opens his door to her and agrees to nourish her back to health. An unmistakable kind of magnetism instantly develops between the two and, importantly, with zero hint of sexual tension. Seligman sits transfixed by the bedside to hear Joe’s story and what brought her to this point of apathy and self-loathing.
Joe tells her story in chapter form, and in Vol. 1 we are presented with the first five chapters. Between Seligman’s excitable interruptions, to Joe’s narrative with comments on how her experiences parallel the art of fly-fishing, and the sensational creativity that peppers the flashbacks with delightful visuals, it’s clear that these are some of the most inspired chapters from the Lars Von Trier library. Not only is Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 refreshingly funny in so many moments but thanks to the playful structure, the intellectual dialogue and the fascinating personalities from Joe’s past (not to mention Joe and Seligman themselves) the picture is also incredibly compelling. The performances from Gainsbourg and Skarsgard are the anchors of a ship full of talent; Stacy Martin who makes her feature film debut as the Young Joe, a pleasantly surprising Shia LeBouf and the greatest Uma Thurman outside of a Tarantino movie you’ll likely ever see. Those are just the standouts, but Nymphomaniac is such an accomplished film that the only truly sore thumb is Christian Slater, who doesn’t quite reach the believable levels all his other colleagues do.
Naturally, the question salivating on everyone’s tongue concerns sex, and Von Trier wouldn’t want it any other way. Nymphomaniac has a “hardcore” and a “softcore” version, with the obvious intention being that the hardcore cut is the definitive director’s version. Unfortunately, the society that Von Trier so dearly loves to poke and provoke simply cannot handle a five hour hardcore Von Trier movie called Nymphomaniac. As such, the film was split into two volumes and the Vol. 1 that’s currently available on VOD across North America is the softcore version running just under 2 hours. Those not lucky enough to live in Denmark (the only country that got the chance to see the full frontal five-hour version) will most likely have to wait until the inevitable DVD/Blu Ray release to see the film as it was intended. The good news is that the softcore version is still a brilliant piece of modern cinema that has zero tasteless sex scenes.
What makes Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 the best film of the year so far (and on its way to loads of year-end top ten lists if Vol. 2 is this good, mine included,) is that it’s a fusion of everything that’s makes us love cinema. It’s intellectual without being pretentious, for the themes, motifs and messages it stimulates don’t suffer from delusions of grandeur. They really are that grand. Its invigorating entertainment is like a rare aphrodisiac you’ve only had in your dreams, making it almost impossible to turn away from the screen at any moment. It employs the means of cinema to the sophisticated degrees which erect the medium to the wonderful art-form that it is. And it dares to enter places rarely visited by others in order to present a psychologically perturbing tale about the most taboo of human conditioning. In other words, if Vol. 2 is equally as impressive as Vol. 1, Lars Von Trier has surpassed himself and created a masterpiece.