August 16, 2014

Queer Review: Nymph()maniac Vol. 1 (2013)

Nymph()maniac Vol. 1
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen

In Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 Lars von Trier examines the issue of female sexuality through the experiences of one woman, Joe. Volume 1 is a fascinating look at a myriad of subjects, ranging from nymphomania to fly fishing, and hopefully Volume 2 will continue what von Trier started here.

A battered and bruised woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin), is discovered battered and bruised on a sidewalk by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes her in. While recuperating in his house, Joe begins to tell Seligman about her life as a woman with a voracious sexual appetite. While she regales him with tales about the 7-8 men she slept with per night, he makes references to fly fishing and the Fibonacci Sequence. Key stories that Joe tells Seligman involve her participation in The Little Flock, a club Joe formed with her best friend B and whose purpose was the denial of the existence of love, as well as her losing her virginity to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf).

The Queering
Lars von Trier is a director who deliberately swerves between general pretentiousness and legitimate insight more frequently than a drunk driver trying to zig zag through an obstacle course. Naturally, he is a divisive filmmaker amongst critics. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 tones down some of his more off putting qualities, creating a final product that is at least highly watchable.

Lars von Trier has a habit of focusing his lens on female characters who fall into the Broken Birds trope and Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is no different. It's one of the reasons that von Trier has been accused of misogyny in the past. However, here he makes a clear effort to present Joe in a non-judgmental light. Seligman offers he up reassurances to Joe (who refers to herself as the worst human being ever) that her behavior is not as bad as it seems and her sexual appetite is not the result of some dark trauma in her childhood.

In Vol. 2, Seligman will "come out" as asexual (a first for a character in major motion picture I believe) and Joe will experiment with BDSM, along with engaging in a lesbian relationship. However, for part one, all of the relationships are hetero and there aren't any hints regarding Seligman's sexuality (unless you count that most of his interests and obsessions, like fly fishing, are completely non-sexual). That is, there really isn't anything *really* approaching a queer subtext in Vol. 1.

Performance wise, the most memorable one in Vol. 1 belongs to Stacy Martin, who plays young Joe's sexual awakening with a verve rarely seen from a performer of any age. As the older and more damaged Joe, Charlotte Gainsbourg is more subdued. Stellan Skarsgård doesn't have much to do besides listen and react non-judgmentally to Joe. Those who associate Shia LaBeouf solely with the Transformers films may be surprised at what he puts on display here (both bodily and acting wise). Uma Thurman has what amounts to an extended cameo, but she has fun with it in a scene dripping with gallows humor.

While Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is a worthwhile endeavor, the more interesting (and problematic) content is contained in Nymphomaniac Vol. 2. However, it is possible to view Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 as a an almost complete motion picture, and it's non-judgemental take on female sexuality means it has enough virtues to stand on its own.

Nymphomaniacs and non-nymphomaniacs alike should be able to get something out of this film.

The Rating
3 out of 4 stars.


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