Nymphomaniac: Volume I

Movie Review #837: The first volume of ‘Nymphomaniac’ is a psychological tour de force.

By Alexander Diminiano


Rated NR (contains mature themes, explicit sexual content, graphic nudity, disturbing content, strong language, violence)
118 minutes
Uncut: 145 minutes

“Nymphomaniac: Volume I” is a sick and twisted, yet sickly brilliant poem. It’s detestable, addictive, enthralling, and fascinating, all at the same time. It’s psychological. It’s dark, and at times, it’s sardonic. It tells the first five parts of its titular character’s story, and it leaves no room for guessing or imagination. It’s all there before our eyes, and we see it in the style of director Lars von Trier, which offers a brooding, discomforting, psychological experience for the viewer. We watch the titular character recount–and often condemn–her lust-ridden existence.

Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the character of Joe beautifully, as does her younger counterpart Stacy Martin. They both offer a view inside the character that’s so extraordinary and unconventional, the character becomes quite nearly unforgettable. Joe tells her story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a man who has just saved her from the street, where she is laying helpless and abused. We don’t know what kind of danger she was in at the time that he rescues her, and by the end of the film, we still wondering.

“Nymphomaniac: Volume I” is split into five chapters, much like other von Trier films. They are “The Compleat Angler,” “Jerôme,” “Mrs. H,” “Delirium,” and “The Little Organ School.” Lars von Trier’s style works as emphasis for what’s going on in the movie. The two volumes of “Nymphomaniac” collectively comprise the third part of von Trier’s Depression trilogy, following “Antichrist” and “Melancholia”. It’s early on in the first volume that “Nymphomaniac” heads for a tragic route not taken by either of the previous films. Despite her rejection of love, Joe falls in love with her boss Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf). But Joe doesn’t realize she’s in love with him until she loses her job. Realizing this, she puts an end to her habits of promiscuity and tries to contact Jerôme. He’s unreachable.

“Nymphomaniac: Volume I” is depressing because it’s well-written, and because it’s well-acted. Chapter Three offers the best of this tour de force, with a strong performance by Uma Thurman. She plays the neurotic “Mrs. H,” who functions not as her own character, but as a force that further establishes Joe’s character. To put into words how critically she attacks Joe would be rather difficult. The attack is not in simply what she says, but in how she says it, and Thurman gives her performance bitingly. That Joe does not react at all to the rant is at the same time humorous and depressing. As a result, her character makes us detest Joe a great deal more than we already did, but we also sympathize for her a lot more, as well. Although Joe offers not a single redeeming factor, it’s more than obvious that she disapproves of herself because she’s a nymphomaniac, as much as any other character who feels the same.

I believe that the wrong audience for a sex scene is one who would label it as smut without even watching. The right audience would watch the scene and naturally make a decision as to whether it had a purpose of being there. As the title suggests, “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” serves as merely the first two hours of a film that thrives in gratuity, but it does so as an emphatic way of telling its story. For instance, there’s a sequence right near the middle of the film whence we see Joe saying the same exact thing to four different men after having sex with them. Such scenes are nothing other than harrowing, and it’s often von Trier’s style that makes such scenes tolerable (if only barely).

As strange and harrowing an experience as “Volume I” is, von Trier has us hooked for “Volume II” by the end. The last lines of the movie, the haunting fade-out, the plethora of unanswered questions. This is the halfway mark in the full “Nymphomaniac”, and we’ve already grown to understand the severity of the disorder which Joe suffers. We already understand how empty it’s left her life. And as I sit here and write this review, I sit and wait, biting my lip in uncertainty, as I anticipate just what might come next in this masterpiece.


2 thoughts on “Nymphomaniac: Volume I

  1. Good review Alex. Seeing any Lars von Trier movie is usually interesting, because you honestly have no clue what he’s going to do next. And that’s what made this flick such a fun time, despite the grimness.

    • Agreed. I had no clue how he was going to start Joe’s life story either. That surprised me. Though he took the second volume in surprising, if unfavorable directions…

      Something I forgot to mention in the review: the music. That contributed to how enjoyable this movie was, despite it being so dark. Loved the usage of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” in the train scene, and, of course, the classical music.

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