Don’t get caught up in the Nymphomaniac hype, of which there are several iterations: “It’s feminist!” “It shows the actors fucking on camera!” “It’s straightforward in its depiction of nymphomania!”
It's not feminist. It shows actors—none of the leads, who were doubled—having penetrative sex. And maybe it’s a straightforward depiction of nymphomania. But that doesn’t get around one inescapable fact: Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 is a piece a shit. It’s a meticulously produced piece of shit (whatever happened to Dogme 95?), but a piece of shit nonetheless.
The reason it’s a piece of shit isn’t because of its subject matter, but because it’s spectacularly boring. The nymphomaniac in question is Joe (played as a young woman by Stacy Martin and, in the present, by Charlotte Gainsbourg). As she puts it, “I discovered my cunt at age 2.” Hearing a woman so freely use the word "cunt" is supposed to be shocking, but it's classic von Trier: a transparent device used to throw the audience off guard and announce with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the nuts that this movie is trying to be provocative.
Of course, subtlety isn’t von Trier’s thing. Maybe that’s why Martin’s performance is so confounding in its dullness. Maybe she can’t act. Maybe being unaffected is a choice because her character uses sex to numb out (but she doesn't, really). Whatever the case, watching her is akin to consuming bromide. There is no discernible emotion on her face. She simply looks tired.
(For a master class on what one actor can do with a blank face, please see Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by Chantal Akerman.)
Then there’s Shia LaBeouf as an Englishman. (That’s not a typo.)
The story revolves around Joe—having been found unconscious in an alley and presumably beaten—telling Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) her life story as she recovers in his guest room. The source of the film’s alleged humor comes from their interplay; he keeps comparing her sexual proclivities to fly fishing. If you know anything about fly fishing, it’s as contrived as it sounds.
One of the most irritating attempts at humor comes when Joe, having been abandoned by Jerôme (LaBeouf) years before, finds a torn picture of him in a park, then runs into him a moment later. As Joe tells Selgiman the story, he says he can’t believe she found Jerôme’s picture and then crosses his path. The exchange between Joe and Seligman sums up Nymphomaniac: Volume 1: It’s lazy and contrived, knows it’s lazy and contrived and doesn’t give a shit that it’s lazy and contrived, but it wants you to think it isn’t lazy or contrived.
There is one bright spot amid the detritus: Mr. H (Hugo Speer) leaves his wife and three kids to be with Joe. Then Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) shows up at Joe’s apartment with the three kids in tow to shame Joe and her soon-to-ex-husband. “Children, let’s see daddy’s favorite place!” says Mrs. H as she leads them to what she calls “the whoring bed.”
It’s a long, uncomfortable and blisteringly funny scene. Chalk it up to Thurman and a moment of lucidity for von Trier.
In a way, von Trier’s career has been leading to Nymphomaniac, but it feels like stasis. If he really wanted to shock people, he’d direct the final chapter of The Hunger Games.
NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME 1
Directed by Lars von Trier
With Stacy Martin, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Shia LaBeouf