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Nymphomaniac: Volume I

October 13, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume I (2013)
Director: Lars von Trier
Actors: Stacy Martin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård

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Synopsis: A lonely man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), chances upon a destitute and beaten up woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), on the street outside his apartment. He brings her inside, gives her shelter, and hears her stories about her sexual escapades up to that point.

Review: It must be serendipity because I saw Nymphomaniac just off the back of finally catching up with François Ozon’s more conventional treatment of an unusual female sexual odyssey, Jeune et Jolie, and they certainly make for interesting companion pieces. Where Ozon’s piece is a classy, classic piece of French psychoanalysis on the phenomenon/state of ‘nymphomania’ so Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a more discursive and wry take on the subject (not surprising given Von Trier’s back-catalogue, although this is certainly one of his straighter, less disingenuous pieces).

I haven’t seen Nymphomaniac: Volume II at the time of writing this, so I can’t comment on how the Gainsbourg/Skarsgård framing device is going to be concluded, but I like it so far, with its ironic juxtaposition of the woman viewing her nymphomania through the prism of guilt and sin, while the caring man – almost to a comic extent – tries to counter her self-hatred through compassion and increasingly pseudo-intellectual justifications for her behaviour.

The use of vignettes to recount the sexual escapades is entertaining in its own right, as well as offering a meta-commentary on the art of storytelling (Skarsgård’s character even acknowledges the potential unreliability of this set-up, before continuing to take Gainsbourg’s stories at face value). The tales themselves are all different – ranging from outright smut and sex comedy, to farce (the sequence involving Joe getting more than she bargained for from Mrs H, a riotous cameo from Uma Thurman, is fantastic) – although Von Trier can’t help but revel in the opportunity to push the boundaries of bourgeois-bating decency with among other things a collage of penises, plenty of actual sex (using the genitalia of porn actors?), and even having the father character played by Christian Slater soil himself! There is almost a predictability to Von Trier’s licentiousness, though one has to begrudgingly acknowledge his ability to infuse each sequence with some element of dramatic or philosophical ingenuity. (October 2014)

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