In Superbad there’s a joke revolving around the Coen Bros directing porn. Despite being a punch line, it made me wonder when a credible director would weave non-simulated sexual penetration into a serious narrative. Considering our society’s slowly increasing acceptance of sex, I figure it was only a matter of time until an audacious filmmaker came along to bridge the once insurmountable gap between hardcore porn and cinematic storytelling. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, that filmmaker is Lars von Trier, the Danish writer/director whose darkest impulses viciously smother moral decorum. He is the cinematic equivalent of a big brother who destroys his little sister’s dolls because he feeds off the ensuing anguish. I respect von Trier’s eye behind the camera, as well as his attempts to blend philosophical musings with revolting scenarios, but he often comes across as a childish provocateur that buries his message under the weight of bad behavior. When von Trier gleeful announced the creation of his newest film, Nymphomaniac, a film determined to feature real sex, the goodwill he generated with the sublime Melancholia was on the verge of expiring.
Upon completion of Nymphomaniac Volume I, I wasn’t appalled by it or even stimulated. It was a disappointing cock tease. The premise of Nymphomaniac is simple: a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), beaten unconscious in a back alley. He takes the mysterious woman in, nursing her back to consciousness. Bruises consume her face, acting as a veil of destruction. When the woman comes to, she begins to graphically detail the depravity she willingly bathes in. According to her, her entire existence revolves around sex. Not just casual intercourse, but a hunger for sexual fulfillment. From the moment from when she first discovers the sensitivity of her genitals as a child to a blossoming woman juggling multiple sex partners, von Trier invasively chronicles the first 20 years or so of Joe’s sexual existence. Joe’s sexual awakening begins harmless enough, but after she disappointingly loses her virginity to high school crush Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), sex becomes a game for her. In the same way people become addicted to drugs, Joe depends on penetration to sequester her sexual cravings,much like a needle piercing a tapped vein.
By the time Volume I comes to a close, she’s entangled in so many sexual lives, she is numb to the world around her. Surprisingly, the depiction of Joe’s sexual acts are relatively tame when compared to the ridiculous heights von Trier has reached in his previous films. Yes, there is real penetration and cunnilingus on display, but it’s extremely grounded and short-lived. The actors themselves don’t engage in actual sex. Instead, body doubles perform all the sexual activity. Newcomer and model Stacy Martin, who plays the younger version of Joe, is quite impressive as the adventurous young Joe. Her performance is more muted than her costars, but it gains an unbelievable amount of weight when her character’s sexual requirements undermine her father’s final moments of life in a hospital. Otherwise, the film’s only other standout performance comes from Uma Thurman in a delirious scene that finds young Joe assisting in the destruction of a family. The scene itself is bizarre, and it feels like it’s from an entirely different film, but Uma is so over the top and deranged she commands our attention and makes it work.
Despite their graphic nature, the film’s sex scenes rarely provide us with anything too insightful about Joe’s life, except for her doomed sexual awakening, which is devastating in its hasty pace. Because of this, the sex scenes feel awfully inconsequential. Admittedly, they are very handsomely constructed, and the narrative flourishes von Trier utilizes add a level of panache to what’s otherwise a grim tale, but Nymphomaniac Volume I fails because it’s built around a hackneyed narrative spine that feels wholly contrived and stilted. The conversation scenes between Seligman and Joe, those which prompt our investigation into Joe’s sexual past, are tiresome, as fly fishing metaphors and the numerical value of pelvic thrusts (Fibonacci fans will love this) run rampant. Some of the script’s philosophical musings are humorous, but they fail to leave an imprint outside their initial weirdness. Now, there is one caveat tied to this review: it was Lars von Trier’s intention to keep Volume I and Volume II as one cohesive piece. So, realistically, there’s a great deal of story missing here. Once I see Volume II my opinion may change on the matter, but as it stands, Nymphomaniac Volume I is a flaccid film. In more suggestive terms, it’s a shower, not a grower.