The artistic merit of film can come from its ability to convey a theme within its story without having to outwardly come and slap you in the face with it. It uses cinematic tricks to push the overall meaning or message into the story and make it much more fulfilling, like a parable from the Bible. It can teach you a lesson without you realizing it until you sit down and truly think about what you just watched. Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Volume 1 wants so badly to fit into that category but in the end, it is trying to be too smart and forgets that the story makes the movie.
Nymphomaniac Volume 1 follows the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) in an alley, beaten and barely conscious. He brings her back up to his place and helps her tend to her wounds. While there she decides to recount her erotic life to him in an effort to show why she was beaten up and why she is a bad person.
The premise had some promise. It could be interesting to watch this person lay out everything she has done in her life and find some turn around from it (which possibly could come in Volume 2) and get something out of her life rather than just sex. But from the first moment of Joe’s past that we enter, it doesn’t seem like that is the conclusion we are headed for.
Gainsbourg plays older Joe and only shows up in this film when she is recounting the past to Seligman. Younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin (who has no previous acting experience) and she commands most of the flashback scenes. The flashbacks start with Joe at a very young age and mainly deal with her relationship with her father (played by Christian Slater). Slater seems out of his element here and it feels like he watched all of von Trier’s previous films and tried to channel that into his performance.
He was odd and his lines were slurred. It was just odd casting and I never felt the point of bringing him into Joe’s life other than to show her first real male presence. But even there, it never really described what made him such an influence on her as it seemed like she was sexually aroused already without seeing something from her father that may have changed her at a young age, Instead we are sent to her teens and a game on a train.
Martin isn’t the worst performance in the first film (actually a lot better than most) but she doesn’t have much to work with other than her sex scenes and a few flirtatious scenes with men. I will give her credit, she personified the detached, sex obsessed human being well. She goes through guys like a revolving door and a montage where she is switching between guys and their attraction and love for her exemplifies the personality of this detached human.
The infamous (well not anymore) Shia LaBeouf shows up, first, to take Joe’s virginity, and second, as her boss at her first job. LaBeouf plays Jerome as someone wanting to be taken seriously in an art film. He tries to be detached but fails in comparison to Martin and tries anger and rage but never gives you anything to fear. He is an important character for Joe, because he is a man she has strong feelings for, which is unfortunate because he is so bad at it.
The film isn’t bad but it isn’t good. It is beautifully shot and von Trier shows an ability to work the camera. But where it falls flat is in its overarching message about sex and humanity because it never makes any sense. Joe has this primal, human urge to have sex and she enjoys switching men and having each man be different (as in her montage of the three letters) but I still don’t understand where it came from and what drove her to be like this. I guess von Trier is saying that we all have this within us but I don’t think it was conveyed correctly.
Nymphomaniac Volume 1 is a shot and miss for the director and one that is trying so hard to be smarter than it really is.