A middle aged man walks through an alley way, and there is a sense of calm until Rammstein’s “Führe mich” starts blaring. The volume for this German metal song is louder than average, as if the abrasive guitars serve as an alarm clock. This happens in the opening moments of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1, a film that’s surprisingly conventional given all the hype surrounding it. More interested in its hero than sexuality, the film is a sympathetic character study with all of von Trier’s usual hang-ups, such as bizarre visual flourishes and scenes the strike an uneasy balance between tact and horror. Although it’s only one half of the completed work, the most shocking about Nymphomaniac is that it’s entertaining in a straightforward way.
Stellan Skarsgård plays the middle aged man. He is named Seligman, and Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) interrupts his walk home. She’s splayed in the alleyway, covered in blood and filth, so Seligman offers to call for help. She refuses, and asks for tea instead. Once they’re back at home, she tells him she’s a bad person, and he refuses to believe it. This the framing device for Nymphomaniac: Joe tells Seligman her life story – told in chapters – in order to shakes his belief in basic human decency.
As a younger woman, Joe (now played by Stacy Martin) discovers her sexual power early. She experiments with her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), and pores over the anatomy textbooks owned by her father (Christian Slater). The loss of Joe’s virginity is more transactional than revelatory: she recruits a young mechanic (Shia LaBeouf) for the task, and he’s utterly indifferent to her except for the utility she provides his genitals. Still, this objectification does not hurt Joe’s feeling since she does not associate sex with love. For her, sex is both pastime and the means for a minor revolution. Seligman listens with infatuation, providing his own insights, and there’s always an undercurrent of mutual respect. He never judges her, although he’s unafraid to poke holes in her analysis.
Von Trier develops an early rhythm and sticks to it. Seligman and Joe have a conservation, then there’s another flashback to a formative episode in her life. The scenes in the present are more interesting because that’s where Von Trier avoids any attempt at provocation (it also helps that Skarsgård and Gainsbourg are terrific actors). Seligman is a conduit for the audience and always provides commentary – more than once he feels like Cliff’s Notes of Joe’s story – yet he’s a fun character because he’s a genuinely curious listener and never calls her a slut. He’s able to augment Joe’s story through his interests, including fly-fishing and music, so von Trier’s camera illustrates his ideas. With split-screens and title cards, parts of Nymphomaniac are downright twee.
There is plenty of sex and nudity throughout Nymphomaniac, yet none of it is especially shocking. Von Trier strips the away the eroticism, with one notable exception, through close-ups and an ambivalent camera. There is one scene where an overweight man goes down on Joe, and the anatomical realties of the scene are profoundly unsexy (there’s also a slideshow sequence of different penis types). Several men hump her, their faces often obscure, and the cumulative effect is numbing. Von Trier does get around to a genuinely erotic sex scene, and the payoff is brutal because of all that preceded it. The sex is not without purpose.
Joe’s attitude toward sexuality is distinctly feminist. At first, she attempts to one-up B in a competition over who can fuck the most men over a train ride. Joe and B are experimenting, at least until they learn how to control men. Their minor revolution is sex-based, of course: as a means of challenging the male privilege, young women must fuck and run without committing to them. B violates this rule when she falls in love, yet Joe marches toward uncommitted sexuality even when her lover’s wife (Uma Thurman) crashes in on her tryst. Thurman’s character is a familiar von Trier creation: in her grief, she turns toward psychological violence and flouts decorum. Her big scene would be funny if it didn’t have innocent bystanders.
LaBeouf’s character does a lot more than take Joe’s virginity. His name is Jerôme, and he is the closest thing she has to a love interest. When they meet again – she works as his assistant – they do not sleep again (Joe gives an insightful answer when Seligman asks, “Why not?”). Jerôme does not have much a personality beyond being aloof and a bit of a bully, yet he’s necessary for Joe’s growth, or lack of it. In a brilliant sequence, one that suggests Slater’s a capable character actor, Joe’s father loses his mind. Joe insists she’s empty, so she turns to an emotional connection for an answer. Von Trier never makes it easy for his characters, so Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 ends with a moment of stark hopelessness. This half is incomplete, frustratingly so, yet von Trier has enough empathy for Joe so that it’s easy to share Seligman’s desire for more.