Sundance 2014 Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

The movie known only as "Film X" was cloaked in secrecy guarded so tight that even the staff of the Egyptian Theater didn't know what film they'd be playing – although they had a hint when they actually had to start carding people to get in. All day, the rumors had been flying about what it might be – Kevin Smith's Tusk? Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel? Hey, the running time is 117 minutes, which is the exact same run-time as The Monuments Men… wait, what? But when all the butts were in seats and the lights went down, there was a surprised gasp in the crowd as the words Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 hit the screen.

Director Lars Von Trier's project focusing on a rather titillating affliction has grown so huge that it's been split into two parts, and what we saw last night focused mainly on the childhood and young adulthood of Joe (Stacy Martin), revealed as flashbacks via her older self (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The older Joe was found bruised and unconscious in an alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who then took her in off the street. She insists to her benefactor that she is a reprehensible human being unworthy of kindness, while he tries to talk her out of her self-loathing and understand where it's coming from. Their conversation is the foundation of the entire film, as Joe tries to explain to Seligman what it means to be a nymphomaniac and how it completely disconnects one from the bulk of humanity, despite the constant coitus.

Yes, there is a lot of coitus in this film, and it's often quite graphic and unsimulated. Yes, you see Shia LaBeouf's Shia LaBalls as he Shia LaBoffs Ms. Martin, and yes, this intense focus on sexuality will be a barrier for some people, but if you can shake off those inhibitions, what you'll find is a surprisingly accessible Lars Von Trier film.

Full disclosure: The only other Von Trier work I've seen is Dancer In The Dark, which utterly destroyed me emotionally with its unrelenting bleakness, to the point where I assumed every other film of his would be a similar ordeal that I'd rather avoid than endure. With Nymphomaniac, I was expecting two hours of brutally uncomfortable sex scenes and maybe a frustratingly nonsensical narrative. What I got was a powerful illustration of alienation that also managed to be quite amusing – mainly due to Seligman's constant mitigation of Joe's personal revelations by association with benign pursuits like fly fishing or Bach polyphony. That's where a lot of the accessibility comes in – Seligman always explains his high-minded metaphors to the barely educated Joe in very imaginative ways, and their dialogue is often pretty funny, since they're both always trying to take the piss out of each other. Even the narrative makes sense, organized into neat chapters. This is a film you can get into – that is, if you can handle watching things like two 17-year-old girls boarding a train and having a competition to see who can bang the most men in the bathroom, the prize being a bag of chocolates, culminating in unfaked oral sex.

The performances in this film are remarkable. Gainsbourg maintains this strangely engaging balance between the enigmatic and the curious, and Skarsgård's fidgety pseudo-therapist constantly inserting his own interests into Joe's life story is charismatic, which keeps their dynamic interesting. While Christian Slater's first appearance in the film as Joe's father initially got a laugh in the theater (because hey, if you are greeted with Surprise Christian Slater, that's what you do), it quickly became clear that he was going to be Joe's link to her humanity as the only parent she liked, a fact which became powerfully evident when she had to watch him succumb to an affliction that included delirium. And then there's Uma Thurman, who delivers the mother of all guilt trips along with her nervous breakdown as the spurned wife of a foolish man who is erroneously convinced that Joe is in love with him after one of their encounters (the kind of thing which Joe tends to schedule with 10 different men per night). LaBeouf's Jerome is equal parts confident and clueless, as we see when he awkwardly takes Joe's virginity and when the two of them fall in some approximation of love, a concept Joe had previously rebelled against for her entire life.

Stacy Martin has the absolute most asked of her in a role which requires her to be fearless (or maybe just more European), and she pulls it all off with a grace you wouldn't expect with all of the gutteral rutting involved. She channels every one of her emotions through sex, as it's the only medium through which she can express them, which makes for the perfectly fitting ending (i.e. midpoint of the full Nymphomaniac saga) when she falls apart in distress about what that's cost her. We feel that distress, as much as we feel her initial curiosities and her devastation over her father's descent into indignity. Whether it's accepting actual cunnilingus on camera or illustrating her own deterioration into borderline sociopathy, Martin proves herself to be a fairly magnetic presence.

On most occasions where sex scenes show up in dramatic films, those of us with jaded meta-heads can often get derailed from a story with thoughts of the contract negotiations required to encourage some young starlet to drop trou for profit. But the bottom line is that the sex in Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is hardly gratuitous even if it's copious, because it truly does feel like Joe has an addiction that quickly lost anything that made it good for Joe, no matter how much she tries to up the dosage. And yet the sex certainly isn't entirely joyless and rote, and neither is the film, as much as I expected it to be. Von Trier's long-simmering project is finally exposed to the world, and it's a blisteringly effective character study that promises to get more harrowing whenever the second volume rolls around.