Thursday, December 04, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Nymphomaniac, vol. I (2014) ***½

NR, 117 min.
Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Ananya Berg

I’m not really sure what I was expecting from Lars von Trier’s latest controversial epic, the two-part “Nymphomaniac”. I suppose I was expecting something a little more sexually harsh, like Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” or von Trier’s own “Antichrist”. “Nymphomaniac”, however, is a much more sympathetic portrait of sexual deviancy, at least throughout the first volume.

The film stars Trier favorites Charlotte Gainsbourg as the titular nymphomaniac and Stellan Skarsgård as a man who finds her beaten in the street one evening. He takes her home and hears her story, trying to convince her that she is not the bad person she thinks. Told in flashback, Vol. 1 contains her younger years, where Stacy Martin plays her as a teen and young adult. She explains how sex had started out as some sort of game played between her and her best friend, first exploring masturbation and then moving on to keeping score of their conquests. Her obsession with sex lives long beyond the friendship, however, and painfully avoids the emotions of love. Although, love does enter into one relationship, which seems to keep pulling her back in.

Often when sex is explored as the primary subject of a film, it feels at times like pornography, whether it is intended to be or not. I think when trying to portray the act as purely as possible, directors often let their artistic license get the best of them and slip into more pornographic nature than is intended. I suppose Trier is just as guilty of that as any serious film director, yet I never felt like that was the case with these characters. Gainsbourg and Skarsgård do such a remarkable job guiding her story with their own emotions that at no point does the movie lose sight of their presence. This is an examination by them, looking back at her past. He never judges, although she seems to want him to. It is alluded to that he’ll find reason to in Vol. 2.

I think their performances are the key to making this story work, although Martin and Shia LaBeouf make for steady leads to present her story. LaBeouf seems like he could become too imposing a presence at first, but his role shifts in her eyes at one point, which is a gesture LaBeouf helps to sell remarkably well. The story leaves the audience at a place where we can accept a break, and I suspect the second half will bring a darker tone to her sexuality.

Certainly there will be critics who can’t get past such outright sexuality as non-pornographic content, but this story is more heartfelt than even other artistic expressions of sexuality I’ve witnessed in cinema, despite the fact that much of her judgment of herself comes from the fact that so much of her sexuality is not emotionally grounded in love. Or is it? Is that what Skarsgård’s painfully reasonable manner sets out to uncover? I’m very interested to see what Vol. 2 has in store, and I’m once again surprised and impressed with the filmmaking skill of von Trier.

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