Sunday, March 23, 2014

Film Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

"Nymphomaniac"  *** (out of ****)

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has released another controversial film, "Nymphomaniac" (2014). The film has been divided into two parts or volumes. Volume one has been released this weekend.

Once upon a time Lars von Trier was a filmmaker I respected a great deal. He rattled me. He makes bold, daring films which challenge the conventions of what cinema can show us, themes to explore. He hit "mainstream" with "Breaking the Waves" (1996) a very engaging film about love, sex and God, though not in that order. He followed up with "Dancer in the Dark" (2000), "Dogville" (2004) and "Antichrist" (2009). I was an admirer of "Waves", "Dancer", "Dogville"- I placed it on my top ten list that year and "Manderlay" (2006) his sequel to "Dogville", he lost me with "Antichrist" which just pushed me a bit too far. For example there were scenes of genital mutilation which disturbed me but at least he got a reaction out of me. Then he released "Melancholia" (2011) which, well, there's no other way to say it, bored the life out of me. And now we have "Nymphomaniac".

Given the title it shouldn't surprise anyone when I say the movie is about a nymphomaniac named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She is lying on the ground bloody and beaten in a courtyard when a resident, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) notices her and offers to bring her into his apartment for a cup of tea, at her request. There in his apartment she tells him her story. Not just why she was lying on the ground in the courtyard, they never get to that, I presume that will be discussed in volume two, but the story of her life is told in relation to her sexuality and multiple sexual encounters and her meeting what may prove to be the love of her life, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf).

The movie is released as "not rated" though if it were it would most definitely receive an NC-17 rating due to the explicit sexual nature of the film. Though it is the cause of the controversy surrounding the picture, I was left indifferent. Not just indifferent to the sex scenes but to the picture as a whole. That is very surprising. Lars von Trier doesn't normally make movies which don't get a reaction out of you. Either you love them or hate him. You don't sit there in the middle pondering both sides yet that's my reaction to this film.

The movie is neither interesting nor boring to me. It is neither erotic or titillating to me yet I wouldn't say it is neither of those things to someone else. It goes on too long yet I felt it ended too abruptly. The sexual scenes didn't shock though I could see how they might shock others. The movie merely exist to look at but I felt nothing as I sat in the movie theatre. I wasn't as bored as I was watching "Melancholia", "Nymphomaniac" is told with a bit more energy, but like the main character in the movie, I was left wanting more.

Joe tells us about her parents (Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen) and her relationship with them. She loved her father, a doctor, who thought her about nature, in particular ash trees, his favorite. She disliked her mother whom she describes as "cold" and "cowardly" among other adjectives I'm not allowed to print. She tells us the early age she discovered her "female parts" (age two) and her first sexual experience (age 15) with Jerome. We learn of a game she and her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) played to see which one would sleep with the most boys in a single day. They would board a train and try to get men to take them to the bathroom to have sex with. Whoever slept with the most men by the time they reached their destination would win a bag full of chocolates. I always knew women liked chocolate but I guess I didn't realize how much.

We learn how Joe is unable to keep track of all the men in her life. Within one day she could sleep with as many as five people. They just wait their turn, like taking a number at a deli. Sometimes situations get ugly, like when one of the men Joe has been sleeping with leaves his wife and children for her. The wife, Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman) arrives at Joe's apartment, with her children, to introduce them to Joe and to make sure the children understand what their father is doing. To some this would be an example of "dark humor" which von Trier is engaging in. We can understand Mrs. H's feelings but we also look on with pity. She is causing emotion scars her children may never forget.

And so it continues for two hours. A couple of sex scenes followed by some scenes with Joe and her father and then a few more sex scenes. During all of this Joe and Seligman will interrupt the flow of the story and try to show correlations between Joe's behavior and fly fishing or musical composition. These moments are a little heavy-handed as if trying to make Joe's behavior poetic. There is art to what she is doing. It is like the story of the director who likes to shoot movies of pretty girls naked and says, it is not porn, it's art. And so it is with Lars von Trier. "Nymphomaniac" is not porn. I'll admit that but it is not great art to me either and when he tries to draw all these connections it seems a bit pretentious.

It may be unfair to review this movie while volume two is yet to be released but is that my fault or Lars von Trier's? Why not just release the movie as one four hour long feature film? It is a nice way to make double the money as now we all have to go back and buy another ticket. Still, I have to admit volume one made no real lasting impression on me. Individuals who declare "masterpiece" are over selling the film. Those that declare the movie is "trash" and / or "porn" aren't being fair. I'm somewhere in the middle. That's not a good place to be when watching a Lars von Trier movie. We'll see what volume two brings us.