Nymphomaniac: vol. I

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

On a cold winter’s evening, the old, charming bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds the self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten up in an alleyway. He brings her home to his flat where he tends to her wounds while asking her about her life. He listens intently as Joe, over the next eight chapters, recounts the lustful story of her highly erotic life from infancy to the age of 50. Seligman, a widely read man, connects and analyzes Joe’s stories with what he has read about.

Inspired by a fly fishing hook in the wall behind her and Seligman’s love of Izaak Walton’s book The Compleat Angler, Joe opens her story by talking about her developing an ongoing fascination with her genitalia, exploring various childlike ways to find stimulation from the age of 2. Her father (Christian Slater) is a doctor whom she loves dearly while her mother (Connie Nielsen) is, as Joe describes her, “a cold bitch” with arguable apathy towards her family. Joe as a child spends all of her time with her father, learning about the various trees he loves, especially the ash tree. As a young woman (Stacy Martin), she loses her virginity to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), a random guy whom she had no relationship with. This first encounter, which ends with Jerôme casually leaving her to fix his motorcycle, leaves her disappointed, while Seligman explains the number of times Jerôme penetrated her, three times vaginally and five anally, is an allegory for the Fibonacci sequence. Years later, accompanied by her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), Joe engages with multiple people sexually on a train carriage. After having sex in the toilet with many of the men she comes across, she sexually assaults one of them who had denied her advances. The whole purpose of such a sex train-trip, was no other than winning a bet which had a candy bag as a prize.

Over rugelach and a discussion over the lack of masculinity of men using cake forks to eat pastry, Joe talks about her first experiences with actual love, something she dismisses as “lust with jealousy added.” Joe takes on more lovers as she, B and several friends create a club, “The Little Flock,” dedicated to liberating themselves from the prospect of love, though Joe leaves after the other members start developing more serious relationships with their lovers. As she gets older and finds work as a secretary at a printing company after dropping out of medical school, her first employer is none other than Jerôme. Whilst sexual intentions are clearly on his mind, she finds herself avoiding his advances and sleeping with other co-workers, frustrating him. When Joe finally realizes she has developed feelings for Jerôme, she writes him a letter. However, she is too late as he has left along with his uncle’s secretary Liz. She is immediately fired by his uncle (Jesper Christensen), the actual owner of the company, for her lack of experience and goes back to indulging her nymphomania, despite a yearning for Jerôme.

On one occasion with one of her lovers, H (Hugo Speer), she causes conflict that makes him leave his wife for her. The distressed Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) enters her house and attempts to demonize them in front of her children, though Joe states in the present that this barely affected her. The situation then becomes more awkward as Joe’s next lover, A (Cyron Melville), arrives at the house and finds himself in the middle of Mrs. H’s mental breakdown. The family finally leaves, but not before Mrs. H chastises Joe for her lifestyle, slaps her now ex-husband and leaves the apartment screaming.

Seligman’s talk about Edgar Allan Poe and his death from delirium tremens reminds Joe of the last time she saw her father. She is the only one to visit him in the hospital as he dies of cancer. Joe’s father asks her not to slander her mother, who is afraid of hospitals, for not being by his side, explaining they said their goodbyes. Joe is a firsthand witness as her father deteriorates into fits of violent spasms and screaming for his wife, forcing the hospital staff to keep him restrained. To take her mind off her father’s suffering, Joe sleeps with several people at the hospital. When her father finally dies, Joe lubricates in front of the body and becomes depressed.

After Seligman explains how he feels Bach perfected polyphony, Joe uses his example to talk about two lovers leading up to her “cantus firmus.” The “bass voice,” F (Nicolas Bro) is a tender, but predictable man who puts her sexual needs about his own. The “second voice,” G (Christian Gade Bjerrum), thrills Joe because of his animalistic control of her in bed. Just before the end, after going on one of her regular walks, Jerôme finds her after separating from Liz, a coincidence Seligman finds preposterous, and they embrace. As the two engage in passionate sex – set to Joe’s experiences with Jerôme, F and G – Joe becomes distraught after finding that she can no longer ‘feel anything’.


Last year, I remember hearing about how Lars von Trier was making an extremely controversial film about sex addiction, which would turn out to be a 5 hour film which was eventually split into two parts. Nymphomaniac, vol. I is the first half of the final film of von Trier’s “depression” trilogy. Forgive me for not knowing what the other films in the set are. I believe Melancholia is one, but don’t quote me. So, does this live up to the hype and reputation it has received? Let’s find out, shall we?

What is this about?

A self-diagnosed nymphomaniac reveals a lifetime of sexual experiences to a man who saves her from being beaten in an alley.

What did I like?

Body of work. I must say  that I was actually impressed with the young lady who was tasked with doing all the nude scenes, I believer her name is Stacy Martin. She has a nice little body on her (albeit a bit less curvy than I care for). Her look actually works for this character. Surely, the filmmakers could have recruited some pornstar for this role but, aside from their horrendous acting, would all that plastic work for this role? No, having someone who is natural when she is au natural is extremely key.

Storytelling. Curious is a word I would use to explain my feelings about this film. I mean this is a film about a sort of sex addiction, from all I had heard. How would they tell an actual story? Well, they do just that, tell a story. The filmmaker chose to have a sort of side plot, where our main character (in what I assume is present day), is telling her tales to Stellan Skarsgard’s character. For me this works. Quite easily, they could have just made this a bunch of random sex scenes with some drama thrown in there for good measure, but that would be nothing more than an expensive porn with actual stars.

Tasteful. So, there are a few sex scenes in this film, just in case you haven’t heard. Here’s the thing, though, while they aren’t your typical Hollywood type…everything is done under the sheets and all we see are breasts bouncing, perhaps an ass shot…it is shot in a way that is very tasteful. Yes, we get some hardcore scenes, if you can call them that, and their way more penis shots than I am comfortable with. I think that is the point, though. Think of it like going to a museum and seeing all the nudes. They aren’t nude like say the Playboy “Playmate of the Month”, but rather they are painted/sculpted very tastefully. The same idea is behind all the sex in this film.

What didn’t I like?

Brits do it better. I was asked the other day why I focus so much on accents. The answer to that is that I don’t know, with the exception of southern accents, since I have heard those most of my life. Once again, I must speak on accents, specifically Shia LeBeouf and Christian Slater’s attempt at being British. Now, Slater isn’t that bad, truthfully, but you can still tell he’s not British. With Shia, it is obvious that he is either not as good or trying too hard. His accent doesn’t sound anymore authentic than when I try to use one, which is pretty bad. I guess we Americans can’t do accents as well as the rest of the world. I say that because we have people like  Christoph Waltz, Rebel Wilson, Mel Gibson, Hugh Jackman, most of the cast of True Blood, etc. who can totally make us believe they from right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., when in turn they are from other places across the pond or down under.

No, No, No, No. What is it that directors keep seeing in Shia LeBeouf? Hell, Steven Spielberg all but christened him the next Indiana Jones before the flop that was Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. This guy is not that great of an actor, contrary to what they might think. So, he shows up in this film in a major role. Here’s the problem, given this subject matter, and where LeBeouf comes from (Disney channel), it is hard to see him doing this kind of role and take him seriously. He just isn’t grizzled enough or leading man material enough to pull it off. A couple of weeks, Hillary Duff released a new video that had her prancing around all sexy, wearing a bikini, etc., much like she did in War, Inc. The problem is that she can’t pull that off, well, the sexy part she can. It is just that she hasn’t shaken the goody-goody image from her childhood. Since both Duff and LeBeouf still have babyfaces, as well, it is even harder to see them in “adult” situations. Maybe part 2 will change my mind about LeBeouf, but I doubt it. He’ll probably just ruin another film series, like he does everything else.

There’s a plot? My apologies for comparing this to porn so many times, but allow me to do this one last time. If you have ever watched porn, then you know the plots are thinner than your girlfriend’s see-through lingerie. There is a much more complex plot here, to be sure, but the issue is why do we care? Reverting to my inner horny teenager for a second, all we see is sex, sex, and more sex. Does a plot really matter, especially when the film is so dull? I would love to say that there was a happy balance amongst the two, but there isn’t. Take the sex out of the film and the plot is rather boring and nonexistent. Of course, this is a film about sex addiction, so you can’t really take the sex out of it. Then again, it worked for parts of Shame.

For a film in the “depression trilogy”, Nymphomaniac: vol. I didn’t make me want to slit my wrists they way that other film in the same vein have. Don’t misunderstand me, this is not a feel-good film, by any stretch of the imagination, but at least there are moments that allow you to feel human. The biggest problem with this picture, though, is that it tries to be more than it is. I found it to be pretentious and dull. Is this a horrible film? No, as with most pieces of cinema, especially the “artsy-fartsy” kind, there are good and bad. Depending on your proclivities, this may or may not be for you. Do I recommend it? At the present time, I have to say no, unless you yourself are a nymphomaniac. Perhaps when I get around to watching volume II, I will have a more concrete opinion on this, or perhaps it will have been swayed in a different direction. As of now, I can’t say as I believe you need to see them both together, since this is an entire 5 hour film (apparently 90 minutes have been taken out for the American release). All that said, feel free to take a chance, at your own risk!

3 out of 5 stars


One Response to “Nymphomaniac: vol. I”

  1. […] up where Nymphomaniac: vol. I left off, Nymphomaniac: vol. II continues telling the tragic life of Joe. As shocked and appalled as […]

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