Friday, March 21, 2014

Nymph()maniac: Volume 1

Nymph()maniac: Volume 1
Dir. Lars Von Trier

4 out of 5

How does Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier get away with even half the stuff in his self-proclaimed "Depression Trilogy"?  Is it because he means what he says, or is it because we know he's just trying to get a rise out of us?  Is Von Trier's current ideal A) investing every taboo and transgression with deep personal feeling, a la Melancholia, or B) trying to unbalance us and our preconceived notions of movies labeled as "art films," just because he can, as in Antichrist?

After watching Nymph()maniac: Volume 1, I get the feeling that best answer is C) a little bit of both.  Von Trier's ambitious two-part NC-17 opus is the biography of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed sex addict.  She begins the film lying bloodied in an alley when she's discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a kindly old gentleman with an encyclopedia's worth of esoteric knowledge about his many hobbies.  Joe pretty much knows about just one thing - sex - and proceeds to tell bits and pieces of her life story to her perpetually fascinated rescuer.

In the hands of another filmmaker, these vignettes might be told with the same abandon she displays in arranging her life around random sexual encounters.  Von Trier, however, takes a highly structured approach, setting up a breadcrumb trail of conversational triggers from a fly fishing lure on Seligman's wall to a dog-eared copy of Edgar Allen Poe stories on his bedside table.  It's as contrived as can be, turning every chapter of Joe's tale into a labored comparison of lust and lures, literature, or late Baroque composers.  Yet Nymph()maniac is also mesmerizing because of the push and pull between its explicit subject matter and its exceedingly arch tone, not to mention a framing device that recalls My Dinner With Andre more than Penthouse Forum.  (Seligman's dorky interjections are truly the secret ingredient of Von Trier's strange brew.)

The film's dispassionate attitude toward intercourse keeps a short leash on puerile thoughts, but it's also an important part of Joe's character.  Nymph()manic: Part 1 is focused entirely on her experiences as a young woman, as played by newcomer Stacy Martin.  Her wan, unsmiling performance complements the movie's chilly and mechanical vibe.  It's telling that the lone emotional outburst - which belongs to a deliciously sarcastic Uma Thurman as the cuckolded wife of one of Joe's lovers - is a great scene that nonetheless feels like it belongs in a different movie.

Nymph()maniac: Volume 1 is a mannered erotic contraption, its regimentation mirrored in Joe's sexual partners, particularly the bad penny Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), who by himself tends to shepherd Joe onto her next "level" of experience or, as part of a trio of men, helps provide a sexual wholeness that she likens to a musical polyphony.  Of course, Von Trier has no issues tearing down what he takes so long to build.  He also relishes his reputation as an enfant terrible - blaring a Rammstein song, cutting together an endless montage of phalli - to the point where it threatens to push the film into the realm of arthouse schlock.  It's entirely possible that the movie's second half will go farther down that path, but for now let's appreciate its author's willful and enthralling brand of cinema: a kind that potentially repels some audiences but certainly leaves no doubt about who is in control.

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