Monday, April 7, 2014

Just the Start: NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I


It’s difficult not to be aware that writer-director Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is half of a movie. Even if you didn’t hear that the Danish provocateur’s latest film ran nearly four hours at its festival debuts and has been cut into two parts for American release, or didn’t understand the title, you’d realize there’s more to the story when the film fades to black, plot and theme left tantalizingly unresolved. Next to the end credits runs a rapid-fire montage of context-free imagery next to the words “from Nymphomaniac: Vol. II.” And so it is hard to come up with a definitive statement one way or the other about the film in its totality, since such a declaration depends partly on where it goes from here. What can be said is that Vol. I is an often dazzling film, intense and thoughtful even as it sets out to shock and amuse with blisteringly matter-of-fact frankness.

As the title suggests, the film is about a sex addict. We first meet her (Charlotte Gainsbourg) passed out in an alley. A kind older gentleman (Stellan Skarsgård) stops to help. She refuses an ambulance, but agrees to accompany him back to his apartment where he makes her a pot of tea. There’s no sexual tension between them, but there is a mutual human curiosity. She launches into her life story, rattling off anecdote after anecdote. She becomes our complicated, and maybe unreliable, narrator, telling him and us about her family, her friends, and, most of all, her sexual encounters. These she takes special pleasure in lingering over sordid details, making sure to emphasize the role each one plays in forming her shame and self-loathing. The man, to his credit, does not judge her. Her engages her, talks her through her feelings, tries to shift the subject by drawing comparisons to fly fishing, math, and art, Bach, Poe, and Fibonacci. Where this conversation is leading neither seems to know, but the steady hand of directorial vision seems guiding them to some kind of conclusion.

Von Trier’s recent films have directed sharply interior emotional landscapes outward into the world at large. Antichrist, his dark and troubling 2009 film, suggested that profound grief could radiate into the environment, deteriorating and rotting surroundings until chaos reigns. His Melancholia, one of the best films of 2011, was even more overwhelming, finding deep depression so destabilizing and overpowering that nothing less than the end of the world becomes sublime release. But in Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, the woman’s interior desires, a mingling of hunger and disgust, are expressed in the world only insofar as she needs other people to fulfill her needs. In long flashbacks, anecdotes sad and funny, energetic and elegiac illuminate her progression from curious teen to a young woman juggling dozens of encounters a week, leaving a trail of bewildered and exhausted, and sometimes happy, men in her wake.

At the center of the stories, quietly commanding the screen, is young French/English actress Stacy Martin in her acting debut. She has a fresh face and eager features, hesitant innocence and starving desires swirling underneath her smooth skin and big eyes. It’s a marvelous performance, tricky and demanding physically and emotionally. She’s just as convincing sweetly asking her father (Christian Slater) to tell her one more time her childhood stories as she is propositioning a man on a train (Simon Böer). Composed, she plays slow-burn infatuation with the boss at her first job (Shia LaBeouf) with appealing earnest yearning. She also plays quiet mortification in the film’s biggest and best comedy sequence when her apartment is invaded by her current lover’s wife (Uma Thurman, in a remarkable scene-stealing performance) who confronts them, three towheaded youngsters in tow.

After each of these varied and compelling anecdotal flashbacks, we cut back to the narrator sipping her tea in the present. She seems to be testing her audience, looking at the patient, kind, inquisitive man from over her mug as if to say, “have I shocked you yet? Are you disgusted with me?” So too does Von Trier seem to be goading his audience, right from the assaultive heavy metal that blasts apart aching silence in the opening scene. Throughout the film, by turns explicit and oblique, he varies the presentation. There are shifting aspect ratios and color, sometimes flat, over-lit digital video glow, other times stretching across the wide screen with vivid colors and marvelous grungy grain. One anecdote, a harrowing hospital stay for a supporting character, is filmed in textured black and white, the better to make blood and excrement the same harrowing darkness on pristine white sheets. Von Trier uses archival footage, gynecological diagrams, and wry charts and graphs, placing them over moments both innocuous and filthy. He creates a world that is flexible, and a vivid and playfully dirty dichotomy between education of the mind – books, statistics, research – and education of the body – biology in practice.

At the end, the film finds a fine stopping point, but not a conclusion. It’s tantalizing and thought-provoking – I haven’t really stopped turning it over in my head since I saw it – but naturally feels incomplete. Vol. I sets up a fascinating character study that I’m eager to see resolved. I could’ve sat through the next two hours of it right then and there. Both volumes are available on video on demand as I write this, but I’ll wait and catch the second half on the big screen as well. A film as cinematically vital as this one deserves to be seen that way if possible.

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