If you were afraid Nymph()maniac was going to be nothing more than pornography masquerading as art-house, don’t worry. The sex doesn’t come off as steamy or exciting as much as raw, monotonous and sort of funny. Director Lars von Trier isn’t going for romance or fantasy here. If anything, he’s trying to tell a story about a woman’s sex life where love is pushed out, and only lust and pleasure reign.
Nymph()maniac: Volume I has five parts (Volume II comes out next month), and the epic begins in a dreary, dripping alley. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is seen lying beaten-up on the concrete. She’s a mystery. Then a passer-by, an older man named Segilman (Stellan Skarsgård), approaches her, offering aid and a cup of tea. In this gentleman’s modest home, Joe tells him that she’s a bad person and tries to prove it to him by detailing her sex-stuffed life story.
Her sexual journey starts in childhood, with some ticklish scenes. Before long, the young Joe (Stacy Martin, a first-time actress) appears, asking some meathead high school stud named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf, who has a terrible English accent) to take her virginity. While that episode is quick and awkward to the point of funny, it does end up sparking Joe’s sexual curiosity. In college, the slender brunette with all-consuming eyes starts to flex her seductive powers. With a friend named B, she competes to see which one of them can have sex with the most men with during a single train ride. The prize? A bag of candy.
Often, the monkish (yet not prudish) Segilman will interrupt Joe’s story to tell her, in detail, how her sexual exploits and techniques have parallels in, say, the art of fly fishing or the mathematics of Bach’s music. Such comparisons and asides bring lightness and humor to the sex story, and the ensuing dialog between Segilman and Joe challenges the audience to form an opinion of the protagonist that isn’t solely based on her own moralizing or storytelling.
Aside from Segilman, the only person Joe seems to have had a normal relationship with is her father (Christian Slater). He gives a startling performance late in the film, as his character turns from a loving father to a shrieking madman in a chapter titled “delirium tremens.” As Joe watches this evolution, she too changes. Sex doesn’t please her as it once did, and she starts growing numb to it.
The idea of love, or romance, is what Joe crusades against throughout much of Volume I. For instance, she lets a dice roll decide what to do with the men in her life, to figure out whether or not to stop seeing this one, or to declare love for another. And when one man leaves his wife and kids at Joe’s request, Uma Thurman rolls into the story like a hand grenade. Playing a spurned wife, she goes off in the film’s most powerful scene, dragging her kids into Joe’s apartment to see the “whoring bed.” The emotional pain Thurman injects into Nymph()maniac is so intense that it changes the entire landscape. The consequences of Joe’s random (sometimes silly) actions suddenly feel immense, and then there’s the realization that, perhaps, “love is the key to sex.”
This is where LaBeouf’s character fits in, as he reappears throughout Joe’s life, bringing a certain sort of consistency that, in a way, could pass for love. There is, however, little passion to this entanglement. One wonders, by the end, if Joe even knows what it means to love another person, or even have a friend. You almost pity her, and start to think of how she ended up beaten up in the alley in the first place. If the clip of Volume II that plays at the end credits is any indication, her life gets a lot more strange and a lot more painful. Watching such a teaser, you’re reminded that von Trier is the man who blessed us with Antichrist. We’ll just have to see, I guess, what trials Gainsbourg’s character will have to go through next time.
Nymph()maniac Vol. I is playing at the Lagoon Cinema. Volume II will play on April 4.