Movie Review - Nymphomaniac: Volume I

Shia LaBeouf (left) and Stacy Martin
in "Nymphomaniac: Vol. I"
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a woman who is a sex addict. She tells her life story and sexual experiences to Seligman, played by Stellan Skarsgård. Seligman is a cultured yet reclusive man. He's the opposite of a sex addict. He's asexual. He's a 60-year-old virgin in fact. Joe tells him her story and experiences in a series of chapters.

Written and directed by Lars Von Trier (Dancer in the Dark and Melancholia), the film operates like episodic television. Joe tells the story of her relationship with her parents, how she lost her virginity and her first sexual adventures. Joe tells the story of the man whose love she returned and the story of the man whose love she didn't return. She tells the story of her father's loss and she tells the story of how the indications of her addiction arise.

In Joe's stories, Stacy Martin plays Joe, as her younger self. Von Trier frequently cuts back to Gainsbourg's version of Joe telling the stories and conversing with Seligman about related issues. Honestly, I could have done without those scenes. Gainsbourg and Skarsgård in a room provide the framework, but I think the movie would have been better if Von Trier ditched the framework and had Martin be the only version of Joe that we see.

I'm still not sure sex addiction is a real thing, but I think Von Trier's film makes a better case than Steve McQueen's Shame. The argument for her sex addiction doesn't really come to play until Nymphomaniac: Volume II. This film more or less lays the groundwork for that argument. It doesn't do much to indicate Joe's sexuality is a problem. At least, it doesn't do so in a way that we would perceive as such, if she were a man. I suppose if that's all it was, then the movie would be sexist.

If the film is sexist, it's so in the way that Von Trier depicts Joe's relationship with her parents. Joe's father is played by Christian Slater and her relationship with him is very warm and loving and comforting. Joe's relationship with her mother is very non-existent if not antagonistic. In fact, in narration, Joe calls her mother a "cold bitch." It's supposed to set up Joe's being able to better relate with men than women, but it seems like a too simplistic, Freudian setup.

Shia LaBeouf (Transformers and Lawless) plays Jerôme, the boy who takes Joe's virginity. Putting aside LaBeouf's horrible British accent, some of his charm and sex appeal do soak through the screen, but the back-and-forth between Joe and Jerôme felt contrived. In Von Trier's defense, this might be purposeful, but Joe seems to be into him and than not. She seems to have no feeling or regard for him at all and then all of a sudden she loves him. I don't get the yo-yo effect early on.

Joe eventually lands on the side of being in love him. She explains it as being taken with his careless elegance and strong hands, but it's a wonder why she never appears to fall in love with anyone else. Von Trier could be trying to make a statement about losing one's virginity, particularly for women. Perhaps, despite Joe's burgeoning sex addiction, she still can't forget or let go of her first.

Some of the groundwork that Von Trier puts down that builds Joe's sex addiction is the fact of her lack of empathy or sympathy all in service to her sexual behavior. This is exemplified in Chapter 3 when Joe introduces us to Mrs. H, played by Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Vol. 1). Many critics have said it already, but H is for hilarious because Thurman steals the show creating the most comedic moment in a non-comedy.

Further groundwork to Joe's sex addiction is how she uses sex as a coping mechanism to deal with her father's hospitalized decline. Further groundwork comes in Chapter 5, which shows how she can't be satiated and how she's scheduling a half-dozen or more sexual partners a day.

It's also interesting how Joe studies men. It comes in how she talks about them. She talks about them in almost a poetic way, particularly in her descriptions of Jerôme. Later, in Chapter 5, she describes men in behavioral ways, comparing them to animals. She never, for example, talks about their bodies and their looks. The one exception is a slideshow of close-up shots of penises, which is done so coldly and clinically that it makes one wonder if she has any appreciation for the male form at all.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains graphic sexuality and full frontal nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 57 mins.


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