"Why would you take the most unsympathetic aspect of religion, such as the concept of sin, and let it survive beyond religion?"
When Lars von Trier announced that his next project would be a five hour film titled Nymphomaniac which would feature real, penetrative sex, many assumed that this was the next natural step in his evolution from filmmaker into full-time provocateur. His antics at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival proved that he was on the verge of going off the deep end, and his attempts to backtrack his statements in the wake of his ban from the Festival hardly seemed authentic. Yet somehow, much as America's "l'enfant terrible" David O. Russell manages to get actors to continue lining up to work with him, so too has von Trier re-enlisted help from regulars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, and Willem Dafoe.
Nymphomaniac has finally hit theaters and on demand in the first of two installments, with the second scheduled to debut in less than a month. Could Volume 1 live up to the hype or would it be confirmation that he's officially passed the point of no return? Read on to find out...
A lonely man named Seligman (Skarsgård) discovers a woman named Joe (Gainsbourg) beaten and lying in the street. He brings her to his home and inquires how she ended up there, to which she replies that in order to explain, she must start from the beginning. The film then cuts back to her childhood with a distant mother (Connie Nielsen) and a doting father (Christian Slater), and how she experienced her sexual awakening at the age of 2. At age fifteen, Joe (now played by Stacy Martin) loses her virginity to a boy named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) which is a repulsive experience for her. However not long after, her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) turns her on to a game where they compete to see which one of them can have sex with more strangers on a train than the other.
Joe begins a descent into the world of sex addiction, and Seligman takes every opportunity to parallel this to fly fishing, as well as a number of other subjects, all of which he seems to have mastered. Joe gets a job in her twenties working for Jerôme, and begins a flirtation with him that may belie stronger feelings they both harbor for one another. She also continues sleeping with as many men as possible, sometimes as many as ten a day, in an attempt to feed her addiction.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is a bit like a tire blowing out on your car at the start of a cross-country trip: Crushingly disappointing and ominously unsettling. Not only are you now wary of the many miles that lay ahead, you're almost exhausted before you've even gotten halfway to your destination. When von Trier is on his game (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) he knows how to weave a tapestry of misery that also manages to be a wholly edifying experience. The destination is worth the journey. Here, he seems to be more interested in how far he can push the boundaries while still managing to tell a coherent story, and never giving even a second thought to whether or not his story is worth actually telling.
His insistence on giving Seligman and Joe such inane dialogue that compares sex to fishing for an absolutely interminable length of time makes you cringe with how heavy handed he's become as a director. When he made Antichrist, it felt as if he was taking a page out of Pasolini's playbook when he made Saló. Narrative, character, and enjoyment be damned, film is a medium with which a filmmaker can chastise an audience and help them experience the truly despicable nature of humanity. Nymphomaniac continues this trend, doubling down on misery and treating sex in a shameful way. In fact, had Steve McQueen's sex addiction film not used the title Shame, it would have been a much more apt sobriquet for this depressing slog of a film.
None of the performances are any good. Skarsgård's character is an annoying stereotype who serves to spell out the film's themes like an elementary school teacher rather than contribute anything actually meaningful to the proceedings. It's a terribly written character, but it's not aided in any way by his somnambulant performance. Martin does nothing more than look dead behind the eyes as she engages in sex acts with countless men. The gold medal winners by far, however, are LaBeouf & Slater. Sporting respectively the first and second worst British accents ever committed to film, these two former child stars bring nothing more to the table than they've brought to any other film. They're both bad actors crushed beneath the weight of stultifying material. LaBeouf may be attempting to go full on Franco both on film and in his personal life, but he hasn't even a fraction of Franco's talent or self awareness.
The film's soundtrack is nearly as obnoxious as its incessant, rambling narrative, but its weapon of choice is Shostakovich's "Waltz No. 2" as opposed to overbearing fishing metaphors. Had that same piece not been used to such dynamic effect in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, it might feel fresh, but instead merely serves to remind the audience of a much better film about sex they could be watching. The soundtrack also features a deafening use of Rammstein's "Führe Mich" right at the top of the film after several agonizing minutes of silence, instantly letting you know that von Trier is obsessed with extremes rather than balance. He'd prefer to jolt the audience into a startled sense of unease rather than allow the world of the film to envelop them, which is fine when done correctly or in moderation, but at the start of a four-hour odyssey, it feels more like a harbinger of doom than an invitation to a journey.
It's entirely possible that von Trier's full vision is something that cannot be experienced in segments, and this is just the calm before the storm. Maybe Volume 2 will validate this as the work of a genius whose entire creation must be seen before it can be judged fully. One could also say that maybe hell will freeze over or pigs will fly, so it's best not to work in hypotheticals, at least for the purposes of reviewing a film. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is a cold, disgusting, hard-hearted film that doesn't really even work as art. It's like a perfume commercial, full of imagery that's supposed to be deep and meaningful, but when you think about it for more than five seconds, you realize that it's nothing more than a shallow collection of masturbatory nonsense.
GO Rating: 0.5/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]