My first encounter with a Lars von Trier film occurred two years ago when I watched his Grand Prix-winning film Breaking the Waves (1996). This Flaubert-inspired plot tries to disentangle the Puritanical interpretations of where morality, sex, and love intersect. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is another attempt by von Trier to take a stab at the Holy Trinity of issues introduced in Breaking the Waves.
Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac. Throughout the film, she has the need to constantly remind the audience that she is a bad person due to her never-ending list of sexual encounters, which are-most of the time-selfish and at the expense of other people’s lives. Joe believes that she is worthless when her only reaction to crisis is to have sex. At the heart of the film, von Trier wants the viewer to disaggregate his or her normal conceptions of sex, love, and addiction into neutral terms. Joe’s nymphomania should not be viewed as immoral. Instead, she states that her only sin is that she’s “always demanded more from the sunset.” Even though Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is not imbedded in the same literary and intellectual tradition as its predecessor, it is a more stunning, brazen, confident, and humorous film.
The film starts with a man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) finding a battered and abused Joe while on his way home from the grocery store. After he brings her back to his apartment to tend to her, she recounts the history of her sexual awakening to her caretaker and savior. Gainsbourg and Skarsgaard give compatible and believable, albeit cold and somewhat sociopathic performances. The most unique performance of the film comes from Joe’s continual love interest, the braggadocious Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). LaBeouf, even with his poor British accent, is able to excel at portraying a sleazy love interest who doesn’t mind taking the virginity of 15-year-old girls in the most unromantic and animalistic way.
Von Trier has simple, yet beautiful methods of conveying Joe’s sexual history. In Joe’s stories, von Trier employs various filmmaking techniques that range from the gritty realism of black and white-exemplifying the loneliness of delirium-to more expressionistic scenes filled with light. Von Trier’s ability to change filmmaking styles within the film to promote different moods is a definite addition for the film. Although the subject matter is very depressing at times, von Trier is able to bring out some of the funniest moments that occur in the most horrible of situations. The funniest part of the film occurs when one of Joe’s long-time lovers, Mr. H, decides to leave his wife and kids to live with Joe after she falsely claims to love him. Mr. H arrives at Joe’s door with Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) and his children in tow. Mrs. H wishes to show the kids their father’s favorite place, “the whoring bed,” which they’ll need to remember during their future sessions in therapy. At this time, another one of Joe’s lovers comes for his weekly session with her. They all sit down at the table together to have tea and there are continuous cuts back to the sad children’s faces.
What designates von Trier as a master filmmaker is his ability to create some of the most aesthetically appealing scenes in all of cinema. During a discussion of polyphony between Seligman and Joe, Joe relates stories of her three favorite lovers. Joe’s memories of her three favorites are arranged in a triptych while a choral prelude by Bach plays in complete unison with the three independent scenes. Multiple images of a Pythagorean man and a leopard with its prey are woven into these scenes to make one of the most aesthetically powerful sets of images in cinema to date.
When one watches a von Trier film, he or she is in for one of the most unique intellectual experiences in contemporary cinema. His staple is shocking his audience, and he always exceeds expectations in that category-Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is no exception. The directing, cinematography, and dark humor allows for the creation of another great masterpiece from one of the most respected international directors.