Review: NYMPHOMANIAC PART 1 Teases, Entices...

When discussing Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac within team Twitch, I suddenly realized a couple of things which surprised me. One, that I've never been disappointed yet by a Lars Von Trier film. Two, how few Lars Von Trier films I've seen.

These two things are very much at odds with one another. I have nothing but good memories of his work, and with every new project of his I hear about I feel excited at the original premise. So why am I not enticed more when a new film by him finally appears in the cinema?
Take Antichrist: Lars Von Trier doing horror? I'm in! I hear it's about a couple grieving over the death of their child, followed by genital mutilation? I'm out!
Take Melancholia: Lars Von Trier making end-of-the-world sci-fi with colliding planets? I'm in! I hear it's a look at clinical depression from the viewpoint of someone who is depressed? I'm out!

Clearly it's his typical approach to the material which makes me shy away from his films. Which is strange, because if it isn't his typical approach I admire, what is?

Now take Nymphomaniac: Lars Von Trier makes a pretty hardcore film about sex, with famous actors? I'm in! I hear it's a five-hour-long collection of short stories told by a severely beaten up woman? I'm... well...

Ok, I was still intrigued of course. Here at Twitch we all had a lot of fun already with the brilliant Nymphomaniac ad campaign, and by sheer chance I'm the first writer here who has the film playing at his local cinema. Internet-surrounded by so many jealous colleagues worldwide who are dying to see it (but can't yet), it felt cruel and wasteful not to take this opportunity. So this evening I sat down to see Part 1 (of 2) of Nymphomaniac.

The setup for the story is this: one snowy evening, a lonely man called Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers a beaten-up woman called Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) outside his house, and takes her in. Joe tells Seligman she is a bad person and when he asks why, she begins telling him stories of her life as a nymphomaniac.

That's where I end plot-wise as I do not want to spoil anything. Suffice to say that the stories are very different from each other, in style, color, mood. Joe keeps pointing out how bad she is, Seligman keeps telling her that her actions are not innately evil, and shows common non-sexual examples to bolster his arguments.

Nymphomaniac-ext2.jpgBy now this probably starts to sound like a somewhat dirtier version of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, and that influence is certainly there. But there is also an undercurrent of strife between Joe and Seligman, both not necessarily liking each other much, yet compelled to win the other over to their own view.

In his earlier films, Lars Von Trier showed that he was able to explain some pretty unique viewpoints to his audience, making people follow a kind of logic they normally would not employ. His approach reminds me of the book "Gödel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter. In that book, Hofstadter showed that Bach and Escher were able to create beauty out of something incomprehensibly complicated. And he used Gödel's math as proof that the mystery element wasn't so much the complexity, but the impossibility to explain the complexity.

In Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier ditches Gödel, ditches Escher, keeps Bach (and adds Rammstein), but does the same thing: in a round-about way he describes something in humans for which there are no straight answers. At least I think that's what he does: I can, of course, only be sure after having seen Part 2 as well.

Whether I'm wrong or right, Nymphomaniac Part 1 is a pleasure to watch. It is a very sensual film from the first shot onward: even before the first actor is seen, Von Trier already plays with sounds and images, making a beautiful audiovisual event out of snow melting in a dark, dirty alley. In those first few minutes, you cannot help but wonder: if this is already so wondrous, so sensual, so beautiful, what will happen when we get to people having sex?

Speaking of which, this review would be seriously incomplete without a few words on the erotic content. Nudity and sex are there, in copious amounts, but they never take the limelight. Lars Von Trier is obviously more interested in showing the emotions and motivations, than he is in providing titillation. The brunt of the nudity is born by Stacy Martin, but while she is definitely very pretty, she is there as an actress first and foremost, not as eye candy.

This goes for all actors, by the way. Lars Von Trier gives everyone moments to shine, including actors like Christian Slater and Shia LaBeouf, using their strengths rather than trying to over-reach on their weaknesses. Shia is delightfully dim and bland, and intentionally so I should add. Stellan Skarsgård and Charlotte Gainsbourg are excellent, but from them we'd expect no less. A special mention must be made of Uma Thurman. If you liked the glimpses already shown of her chapter, rest assured she is fantastic here, being very sad and very funny at the same time.

As I write this, the clock here in The Netherlands has crept past midnight. This means that later today, Nymphomaniac Part 2 will be premiering. My initial plan was to wait a week before catching it, to fully be able to mull over Part 1 in my mind. But now I don't think I can wait so long. I want to know what further happens with the conversation, the battle of wits and empathy between Joe and Seligman. The short preview at the end of Part 1 shows that Joe will start to tell stronger stories, fouler ones, enough so to make me worry.

Then again, it may be that Lars Von Trier is just fucking with us here. Part 2, hopefully, will tell!


(UPDATE: Indeed I went to see Part 2 the next --or technically the same-- day, and here is THAT review...)

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Around the Internet:
  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    Apologies aforehand to "Destroy All Monsters." I actually appreciate reading "Destroy All Monsters." I'm just aching to have Todd Brown explain the world as it is to me some more. So...

    Let's apply the "Destroy All Monsters" approach to Lars Von Trier. He's never made a Blockbuster, and I assume he spends as much on his yadda-yadda as any of the other pretentious, arty cinema directors do, which of course --- it's a fact of life --- means that "we all" can't possibly care, because he doesn't represent the theater-going experience that Spielcas-Luberg have endorsed as The Future.

    Of course, he's probably one of the most interesting film-makers we have --- right behind Dude Who's Doing Phase-4th-Tier Marvel Movie Reboot --- so "we all" should fire up our, I dunno, palm devices, or some shit, because that's how The Marketplace --- which has the final say, duh, brah, since Product Costs (It's A Fact Of Life!) --- dictates NYMPHOMANIAC PART ONE: THERE AND BACK will be seen.

    Any word on frame rate? What about the third dimension? Because that's what's really important to "we all" right now.

    My personal love / hate relationship with Von Trier (which --- I can't stress this enough, is of absolutely NO importance because film is not art, cannot be art, shouldn't be art --- costs too much) is on a love-uptick since MELANCHOLIA, but I'd rather poke my own eye out than watch Shia LeBouf have sex. So, drop the "hive-minded" gobbledygook and tell me: How much genitalia in this movie? The Heartland is really uncomfortable with genitalia these days. I've seen ANTICHRIST. I'm really concerned with what Von Trier likes to do with genitalia.

    (Sarcasm is hard to read on the internet. I appreciate you all at Twitch.)

  • Lars' disregard for the commercial side of the business is what cost him final cut here. Heh. And the time he specifically set out to make a film to make money the result was Antichrist. So right back atcha. Heh.

  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    And, hence, his "disregard blah-blah-blah" explains why this film shouldn't have / couldn't have been made and why none of us should be remotely interested, Todd, as you've pointed out, again and again. I'm enlightened. It is, after all, a fact of life.

    And ANTICHRIST was a film made to make money? Because, um, he told you that? Because, um, it was marketed as a horror movie and those are popular? Because, nothing makes money quite like testicle mutilation? It's like badminton, played with air.

    I said it days ago: We will argue chicken and eggs until we both die thinking the other is full of shit.

    Film is Art. Money is Business. The two can sometimes impact each other, but they should never copulate.

  • Yes, Lars was quoted repeatedly saying that he made Antichrist because he needed to make some money. Look it up. [I just did it for you. It's a statement he first made all the way back in 2004 while editing Manderlay when the plan was to do Antichrist next. He did The Boss Of It All instead and took some time off to deal with some personal issues before coming back to it. It's a statement that would be repeated a few times over subsequent years.] Commerce is 100% the sole reason that film exists. He was very, very open about that throughout the entire process. Zentropa was in a bad spot financially at the time because of a string of box office flops and they needed something they could sell. An in your face horror film got the job done.

    And, no, his disregard explains why HIS OWN COMPANY took control away from him. If he'd had an ounce of common sense and planned appropriately that wouldn't have happened. Your capital A 'Art' doesn't get made in this case without someone else investing fifteen million dollars of their money into it and if Lars (or anyone else in that situation) wants to continue to make his films with relative freedom he needs to respect the sources of that money. When you need that much 'Money' to make your 'Art' then the 'Business' is intrinsically bound into its DNA and the two cannot be separated. It's not hard to understand. Film is BOTH. It is a collaboration and a balancing act from start to finish.

    And, incidentally, yes: I HAVE met Lars in person, I've been to Zentropa's headquarters, XYZ (the company I'm part of) is collaborating with Zentropa on a project right now, I email with two of Lars' producers on a very regular basis, have met with their financial officers, am on a first name basis with the sales people in the international sales company that Lars co-owns, and have twice been commissioned by the DFI to write pieces for their official publications. I've got a pretty good idea how their business model works. Your opinion's based on what, exactly?

  • Ard Vijn

    If Lars wanted a longer cut, he should have made this as a television series. The episodical way the story is told actually lends itself pretty well for that.

    And now we have NYMPHOMANIAC double-dipping its release, with a longer version later this year. Have I just watched the longest trailer in movie history?

  • Hanajun Chung

    "When discussing Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac within team Twitch, I suddenly realized a couple of things which surprised me. One, that I've never been disappointed yet by a Lars Von Trier film. Two, how few Lars Von Trier films I've seen."

    I actually had the same realization as I was reading this article but slightly flipped for me. I had that push-pull attraction towards his work based on suggestions, but for me, they were Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. The latter I watched with my mom. That was an experience.

  • rustdog

    I'm stilled amazed that the same director who made The Element of Crime, which I love, has gone on to make such unique and different styled films with each outing. I can't say I've enjoyed them all, but I'm always willing to watch.

  • Douglas Roy

    An insightful and thoughtfully written review of yet another controversial Lars Von Trier film. Like you, I have mixed emotions when approaching yet another film from this Danish dogmatic filmmaker. Can't wait to read your take on Part II.

  • Bos

    I actually have 'mixed emotions' when approaching to a movie only if the director disappointed me with one of his works in the past, but until now Trier never failed me, so I am very confident.

    I watched 2 movies by Trier, the same 'Antichrist' and 'Melancholia' which the reviewer Ard Vijn talks at the beginning of this well done article, and I think they are both a great piece of work.

    I am following the development of Nymphomaniac since the start, and it is the movie I am most eager to watch. Happy to see this positive review.

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