“Mea Vulva. Mea Maxima Vulva.”
I don’t intend it to be a smirk at those who think otherwise, but Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is much tamer than I expected. I’m not sure why I thought it would simply be gratuitous sex from start to finish—I guess I let the hype surrounding it taint what I knew and loved about the auteur’s work. There is sex, don’t get me wrong, enough even to be considered straight porn if it were 90-minutes in length. But this installment is almost twice that: 148-minutes to be precise since I waited until the director’s cut because what’s the point of watching a movie the artist did not construct himself, stamp of approval regardless? The intercourse scenes come in waves, gone for long stretches and then assaulting you for shorter ones. The biggest difference from porn, however, is its complete lack of titillation.
And here is where I’m disappointed I found myself letting off-hand comments permeate my thoughts. When it comes to von Trier you have to accept and trust that he will be delivering something much grander than convention should allow. Let’s be honest—pornography is as conventional as one can get. Sex for pleasure, entertainment, and escape presented in as detached a way possible so that you’re viewing characters onscreen probably farther removed from real life personas than your mind can imagine. To simply film a “mainstream” pornography (which this is far from considering the Dane’s propensity for tough subject matter that oftentimes means his art won’t even grace the most independent theater in your town) wouldn’t be enough to satisfy his imagination, motives, or desire to push the envelope and give the masses something they haven’t seen before.
Volume I does exactly this by giving us a pornography we can attach ourselves to emotionally. Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult and our storyteller, Stacy Martin during her sexual awakening and numbing, and Maja Arsovic as a seven-year old experimenting with herself on the bathroom floor) is a real life woman found beaten in the gutter by a local intellectual named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) on his way home from the market. She isn’t some bubbly, sex-crazed deviant slinking the streets for prey. No, she’s a broken soul who’s more inclined to label herself a sinner than a sex addict engaging in healthy intercourse. Joe sees her genitalia as a Pandora’s Box of evil devoid of the hope that mythology provides in its aftermath. Perhaps it will arrive in Volume II, but for now it’s mere fantasy.
Shot with the type of theatricality that’s reminiscent of von Trier’s previous work—perhaps the closest to Dogville and Manderlay he’s gotten since—there’s also a storybook quality to its progression that pulls you in to hang on every word Joe speaks. She isn’t looking for a reaction, justification, or excuse; she hopes to tell the truth and show her kind host why her bruised face and pain are a direct result of her own actions. For his part, Seligman refuses to let her place the blame squarely on her shoulders. An optimist of the highest order, he sets out to view her tale pragmatically, to dissect and relate it to the world as commonplace. Viewed outside the venue of her narration it becomes the depravity of a slut. Spoken with her vulnerability it’s the universal tragedy of life.
Seligman forces her sexuality into comparisons with fly-fishing, Bach, and even the Fibonacci sequence to prove its ubiquity. The film as a result looks to desensitize sexual promiscuity and the act of intercourse with up to ten men a night as natural if only because God has made it so we can. The unexplainable phenomenon of mathematics being discovered in her loss of virginity, her musical triplet defined as beauty rather than the devil’s work, and her shame from connecting stimulation with the death of a loved one deemed normal all aim to assuage her of the self-hating guilt she holds tightly as a means to return to her lecherous ways, consequences be damned. Seligman sees her as a specimen, a hunter in control of herself simply doing what she was born to do.
That is until the coincidences prove too much for him to bear, causing him to question her honesty. Is it all a story? A construct to keep this old man engaged before Joe pounces? A time-waster to heal before returning to the nightmare she desperately tries to make us believe she lives? I’d like to think it’s real, the trials and tribulations of a woman so ravaged by emotion at a young age that “feeling” has become impossible. This is what happens when you can’t stand to be in the same room as your cold-hearted bitch of a mother (Connie Nielsen). When you watch your father (Christian Slater) succumb to delirium in a hospital bed by your side. When the best friend that taught you about sex’s power (Sophie Kennedy Clark‘s B) bails on you for love. And when your own love for a man (Shia LaBeouf) unceremoniously betrays your strength.
The copious amount of sex, images of penises circumcised and not, and orgasms emanating from Martin’s open mouth serve not as material to arouse, but to humanize this girl’s actions so we may relate to her pain and/or the ways she seeks to quell it. While chapters like “The Compleat Angler” excite in its adventurous suspense and “Jerôme” possess the energy and allure sex provides when the secret ingredient of love is mixed in to usurp physicality, it’s the vignettes of duress that speak volumes to Joe’s character above games. “Mrs. H” is deliciously awkward once the wife (Uma Thurman) Joe’s “John” (Hugo Speer) left to be with her arrives with their kids for a surreal guilt trip; “Delirium” devastating in its honesty and depiction of sex amplifying grief; and “The Little Organ School” a culmination of pleasure, domination, and love’s inability to fill the emptiness inside.
Volume I is very much the lure so frequently showcased—the desirable yet hollow distraction begging us to follow. Like Seligman we hang on every word, salivating not for what new sexually explicit position will be shown or to project ourselves onto the naked players writhing in pleasure or languishing in boredom depending on the moment, but in anticipation for the gradual descent into hell. While Seligman yearns to give it meaning, I’ll admit I only wanted to watch it implode. The candor in which she speaks—whether manipulated, romanticized, or elaborated—is her way to cleanse the darkness from her soul. Or at least acknowledge its festering wound with a name. As viewers we want the darkness, to bathe it in and compare our own addictions as though it’s lesson. The truth is we’re all drowning in something.
NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME I & VOLUME II – EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT, a Magnolia Pictures release.