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In some ways, NYMPH()MANIAC: VOL. 1, Lars von Trier‘s newest symphony of provocation, almost seems less like an actual movie than a computer-generated model to attract maximum controversy. To recap: the last time the Danish filmmaker was in the news, he had gotten kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival for joking (?) about “relating to Hitler.” He then announced that his next film would feature both real live movie stars and real live sexual intercourse. Eyebrows raised even further when it was revealed that the film would be so massive as to be split into two “volumes,” each nearly two hours long. Then there is the matter of its male lead, five-years-ago it-kid Shia LaBeouf, whose very public recent descent into either mental illness or performance art (I know, I know: you say tomato, etc.) can almost certainly be traced back to his involvement with Von Trier. Indeed, after what seems like ages of tabloid stories, the film itself almost feels like an afterthought to its own conversation.

But after all is said and done, there is a movie under all that controversy. And as it turns out, it’s actually pretty good.

The film opens with a woman named Joe (played by indie renaissance-woman Charlotte Gainsbourg) being rescued by a kind, if nebbishy, older man named Seligman (Von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgård) after being found lying bloody in an alley. Sipping tea in his sparsely furnished apartment, she recounts her sexual awakening from age two to present, in an effort to both explain how she wound up in that alley, and to convince the eternally optimistic Seligman that she is, in fact, a monster (“I’ve never met a bad person,” Seligman protests; “You have now,” Joe counters).

Nymphomaniac Vol 1 Review

I’ll get this out of the way right now: NYMPH()MANIAC: VOL. 1 (which I shall henceforth refer to as NYMPHOMANIAC, as typing those vagina-parentheses feels increasingly silly) is not the wall-to-wall fuckfest that most have likely envisioned since its announcement. The sex is there, and it is graphic, but it is treated as more of a recurring motif than the movie’s raison d’être, alternately played as utilitarian and poetic, and leavened by distancing touches like on-screen hump-tallies, cutaways to stock footage, and Gainsbourg’s own detached narration. A disclaimer at the end assures the viewer that all “penetrative sexual intercourse” was performed by body doubles, and not the “professional actors” – which, admittedly, leaves the door open for a good deal of speculation.

Speaking of those “Professional Actors,” I might as well jump to the other thing everyone knows about this movie. I feel like Shia LaBeouf should be given some credit; he’s clearly trying to break away from his Michael Bay-friendly bro-twit persona, and has chosen the most radical way to do that short of becoming a clock tower sniper. That said, he never quite gels with the movie as a whole, sporting an accent that drifts listlessly between Cockney, Australian, and John Travolta, and “aging” by putting on a dress shirt and a bad mustache. Curiously, Christian Slater, while even less convincing in both accent and age as Joe’s infirm father, fares much better, largely by virtue of being given some of the film’s most touching material. Uma Thurman, meanwhile, very nearly steals the movie in her ten-minute turn as the scorned wife of one of Joe’s lovers. Running back and forth across the Von Trier gamut from gut-wrenching hilarity to bone-crushing heartbreak, Thurman follows her husband to Joe’s apartment and matter-of-factly introduces her children to their father’s new lover, home, and “whoring bed.” Afterwards, Joe dismisses the incident as just one of many; Thurman’s performance is good enough to make one wish it was more than that.

The heart of the film, however, lies in the framing scenes between Gainsbourg and Skarsgård. As the audience surrogate, Skarsgård plays his character with just the right balance of earnest naivete and scholarly curiosity, with his interest in Joe only occasionally drifting into vaguely creepy territory. He doesn’t understand sex, but he does understand fly-fishing, polyphony, and the death of Edgar Allen Poe, and his lengthy tangents and analogies effectively provide a counter-narrative. Gainsbourg, meanwhile, narrates the tale with a cocktail of world-weary sadness and frank bemusement that keeps the audience invested even through the more shocking material (Gainsbourg is, of course, no stranger to controversy; in addition to starring in Von Trier’s equally incendiary ANTICHRIST, she is the daughter of notorious French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she sang her first duet, “Lemon Incest,” at age 13). She is so authoritative that it’s easy to forget that, for 90% of the running time, Joe is actually played by the younger Stacy Martin. It’s kind of a shame, as Martin ultimately carries most of the movie; she really ought to get more credit for doing most of the film’s heavy lifting (so to speak).

It strikes me as somewhat amusing that, just one week before, I watched Wes Anderson’s new film THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL on the same screen at the Kendall. On the surface, Anderson and Von Trier could not be more different as filmmakers, with the ornate, precocious dollhouse world of Anderson’s films in a different solar system from the brutal realities of Von Trier’s various purgatories. But they are both mannerists at heart, with characters who spout clipped one-liners (“My mother was what you could call a ‘cold bitch,'” Gainsbourg deadpans early on) amidst a backdrop of carefully curated old-world kitsch. But where Anderson’s films are populated with ornate Victrolas and beautiful bakers’ assistants with Mexico-shaped birthmarks, Von Trier’s are filled with cold-eyed sociopaths and tape-recorders that cut off halfway through a Bach piece. It’s a cold world, but the humor and care save it from being oppressively grueling. When NYMPHOMANIAC ends abruptly with perhaps the most literal anti-climax in film history, the prospect of a second volume feels like far less of a threat than it could be.

NYMPH()MANIAC: VOLUME 1 (2014) dir. Lars Von Trier [110 min.]

Kendall Square Cinema
1 Kendall Square
Cambridge, MA 02139
Click here for tickets and showtimes

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