Review: Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

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Lars Von Trier's sexually explicit epic has been edited into two different versions. There is a 4-hour "international" version (which is what Magnolia is currently releasing here in the U.S.), split into two halves for distribution around the world. A 5.5-hour "hardcore" version contains even more exposition and explicit footage. While it's hard to imagine that the hardcore version would ever see the light of day in America, Magnolia has stated that they'll eventually release it domestically, although that may be exclusive to home video.

Despite its occasionally explicit nature, anybody who is familiar with Von Trier's work will not be surprised to know that the film is not at all sexy. If Nymphomaniac had been submitted for a rating, the movie would certainly have earned an NC-17, but I suspect that if two or three brief shots of penetration and/or oral sex had been removed that it could have earned an R. I was not shocked in the least, even when I occasionally felt that I was being prodded to be shocked. 

For most audiences, even the 4-hour version will push boundaries too far, but perhaps it is a little more palatable when the story is split up into two installments. Both sections are available to rent on VOD now, but if you want to see what the fuss is all about on the big screen, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is hitting Austin this weekend. It's difficult to asses Von Trier's work when you've only seen half of it, but Volume I is well acted and highly compelling.

The movie begins with a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying bruised and bloodied, passed out in an alleyway. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) passes by and comes to her rescue, taking her home and offering her hot tea and a warm bed. The entire film is framed with Joe and Seligman in this spare bedroom as she slowly unveils her deepest, darkest secrets. There is no innocence in her story ("I discovered my c*nt at age two" is actually one of the least offensive things to come out of her mouth), but he never passes judgement on her. On the contrary, Seligman seems genuinely interested in her curious proclivities and is able to compare all of her sexual conquests to fly-fishing techniques. 

In flashback, Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin. In this first half of the story, Gainsbourg may be telling the tale, but it's Martin who is fully exposed. At the tender age of 15, she asks her neighbor Jerome (Shia LaBeouf, sporting a ridiculous accent) to take her virginity. In a matter of moments she crosses "virgin" off her list and sets her sights much higher.

Young Joe is less concerned with the sexual act and more concerned about the feeling of conquest. She eyes her prey and zeroes in, reducing her potential mates to tally marks. She is seemingly insatiable, although none of her partners seems to bring her much sexual pleasure. Joe is an addict and this is her deepest, darkest confession.

I'm not sure what we're supposed to think about Joe as she tells her story. I don't even know if we can believe everything she says. Can she be trusted as a narrator? That remains to be seen, but I took the approach of Seligman -- curious and non-judgmental. Taking the basic storyline of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I at face value, it's worth asking why women in our "polite society" are not allowed to enjoy experiencing casual sex in the same way men do. 

Von Trier has again split his story into chapters. Through them, we explore more than Joe's sexuality. We learn of her genuine love for her father (played perfectly by Christian Slater even though he doesn't garner much screen time) in a chapter that inexplicably switches to a black-and-white palette.

The greatest moment in the film comes in Chapter 3, where we're introduced to Mrs. H (Uma Thurman). Mr. H has left her for Joe, mistaking passion and infatuation for love. Mrs. H comes around to Joe's apartment to confront her husband with their three young children in tow. The end result is like watching a masterclass on acting unfold before your very eyes. Thurman is a revelation and her performance is small but mighty. She leaves an impression long after she's left the screen. Even if you dismiss the perverse nature of the film, it really is a magnificent scene.

Ambitious and provocative, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 is a cinematic experience like none other. I'm anxious to dig into Volume II, which I suspect will be a little more shocking than the first half (if that's possible). It's not an easy journey, but just like the fish on the other end of Seligman's line, I'm hooked. 

Nymphomaniac: Volume I opens Friday at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane and Violet Crown Cinema. It's also available as a VOD rental. Volume II is already available as a pre-theatrical VOD rental from cable and digital providers, and is scheduled to open in Austin on April 11.