Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1

A little while ago, I was perusing Netflix, and it occurred to me that I had never seen a Lars Von Trier movie. Netflix has a way with enabling. So, having almost no expectations, and no prior experience with Von Trier or Charlotte Gainsbourg, I dug in and clicked the right-facing arrow. The short conclusion: LVT is not for me.

Actually, I guess I had a few limited, disparate expectations in my mind. Gainsbourg’s O-face on the Vol. 2 poster, which popped up right next to Vol. 1, had a certain Keira Knightley-circa-Atonement quality about it. Since I loved that movie, I immediately, irrationally thought that Vol. 1 would be a more graceful and beautiful than it was—a little more like Atonement, in fact. An unfair standard, to be sure, but it was in my head regardless. Also, the straightforward title of Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1, sets up two very straightforward implications, one being that the movie is about sex, and the other being that the movie does not end with this first installment. Both of those things are true for this movie, but neither of them make it particularly enjoyable to watch. Then again, an enjoyability factor probably wasn’t on LVT’s mind. Instead, his mantra reeked more of discomfort, and in making this movie, he attempted to show the ugly side of something typically deemed beautiful, in a beautiful way. To me, the finished product was… ugly, for lack of a better term.

I sat through most of the movie very conflicted, because I knew I’d hate the second movie just as much as the first. And yet, I wasn’t hate-watching this movie. “Hate-watching” is a term and a concept that I loathe anyway, because no one should watch anything because they hate it. Art and entertainment are meant to be enjoyed, or at least thought-provoking. I certainly wasn’t enjoying the movie, but I was intrigued. My friend Lorenzo and I briefly discussed this frustrating concept via email, how we can’t completely fault LVT for being a sensationalist because, ultimately, the movie does make you think. And not just about sex, as the title would imply. Gainsbourg’s character, Joe, spends the whole movie sitting in a bed, badly bruised, telling her story of adolescent nymphomania to a random, older, not creepy guy played by Stellan Skarsgard. In allowing her to tell her entire life story, in explicit flashback detail, LVT actually presents us with more questions than answers, thus setting himself up to make another titillating movie. We see every man young Joe seduces, and we learn a bit about her father’s (a surprisingly un-slimy Christian Slater) disturbing illness, but we still can’t quite connect the dots and understand why she turned out to be a nymphomaniac, or more immediately, why she’s sitting in that bed with those bruises talking to that guy.

A side note: Uma Thurman has a small, powerful role as the wife of one of young Joe’s lovers, and it basically made the whole movie for me. I’ve never seen at that level, shrieking, imploding, melting down. She is a force, and she is worth watching.

I’m not going to make a point of seeing Vol. 2, because I didn’t finish the movie willing to spend two more self-indulgent, overly-artsy hours of my life tying up Joe’s story. Despite her issues, Joe actually seemed real and trustworthy enough to me that I didn’t feel the urge to “check in” on her and make sure she turned out alright. If she made that much of a leap from youth to adulthood, she’ll be fine. (In a manner of speaking; I did read the Wikipedia summary of Vol. 2 and… “turned out alright” is relative, but I still think she does.) She’s also a pretty empty shell of a person, and not one that I’d want to get to know any more than I already have.

Thanks, though, LVT, for all the intercut thrash metal and close-ups of people’s faces. I’m all set for now.

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