Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I is a cryptic morality tale whose occasional impulse toward simplistic voyeurism is offset by its adamant hyper-narrativity and its main character’s agonized quest for meaning. In the film, Charlotte Gainsbourg, along with Stacy Martin in the film’s flashbacks, plays Joe, a downcast nymphomaniac who takes shelter with a solitary bachelor, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a coolly cerebral, and increasingly dubious Good Samartan. Bruised and battered, Joe ventures to narrate her youthful sexual adventures, from arousing play as a child and losing virginity at the age of 12 to sexual encounters with strangers.
Von Trier stages Joe’s first sex rampage, on a night train, with visual bravado: As Joe and her friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), bet who can score more men, a series of tense, suggestive glances and gestures builds up to a pictorial catalogue of arousal, heightened by the time compression, and spliced with text on the screen, to evoke the girls’ play and wantonness. We’re close in these scenes not only to Joe’s actions, but also to her thoughts, directed at a single aim of asserting her sexual prowess and debonair air. Her single-mindedness is evoked again in a brief scene, in which Joe and her sexual liberation conspirators recite, “mea vulva, mea maxima vulva,” a moment so comical in its depiction of an infantile sorority that we can only take it to mean that Joe is puzzled by her original, youthful naïveté, and wishes to distance herself from it. But Joe’s retelling ultimately lacks self-irony, and her rebellious liberation soon becomes a shackle, as she cannot shake off her ravenous sexual appetite, even as she falls in love. Love, in fact, becomes the ultimate threat, and part one of von Trier’s opus ends with Joe and her sweetheart, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), in tormented coitus.
Von Trier uses the dark, claustrophobic depths of the alley where Seligman finds Joe before bringing her home to evoke the murkiness of the human psyche. But what happens in Seligman’s bedroom as Joe recuperates is more like a grotesque failure in communication. Joe is self-flagellating in her guilt, as she sets out to prove that she’s been reprehensible, while Seligman, an avid fisherman, offers plain biological metaphors for her behavior. Von Trier’s choice to frame the narrative as a chat between a punctilious materialist and a poetically inclined nymph results in endless breaks and starts, with Seligman’s imagination eventually emerging as patronizing and grotesquely smutty (at one point, as Joe mentions her education, he pictures her as a stocking-clad schoolgirl masturbating at a blackboard). Perhaps these are hints that Seligman, as the alleged voice of reason and compassion, isn’t to be trusted. After all, von Trier’s work abounds in bigots and hypocrites, of which the eponymous town in von Trier’s Dogville—a work that featured a woman whose sexual abuse bordered on martyrdom—was a prime example, and there are hints in Volume I that by exposing herself Joe, too, risks physical peril.
Dark hints aside, von Trier does a masterful job of presenting Joe’s life as dominated by and, in large parts, electrified by sex. All other private details—a despised mother (Connie Nielsen) and beloved, doting father (Christian Slater); education; and laissez-faire approach to work—are pushed to the background. More successfully than Steven McQueen in Shame, von Trier manages to convey Joe’s acting out as a desperate need to feel alive. She’s so listless the few times that we see her on screen when she’s not having sex that it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her. As is customary with von Trier, even the lighter moments are tinged with hysteria, which is given full reign in a wrenching hospital scene where Joe watches nurses change her dementia-addled father’s diaper.
Von Trier draws on Freudian psychoanalysis sufficiently enough to hint at deep-seated childhood trauma—or at the very least, fixation. Her helplessness and despair in the face of her father’s illness couldn’t be more starkly at odds with her clinical chilliness when she’s confronted by a desperate wife, Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), and children of a man who has abandoned them for Joe’s sake. Thurman shines in the high-voltage, somewhat operatic role of a betrayed spouse—a reminder that von Trier’s art often lies in the cleft between cool, essayistic detachment, frequently conveyed via voiceover, and harrowing immediacy. If we’re firmly in Bergmanian family-drama territory, recalling Scenes from a Marriage, von Tier finds his own way to raise the stakes. There’s discernible tension between how little impact the family tragedy has on Joe, and yet how, slowly, at times almost undiscernibly, it propels her toward acting out and, in turn, harshly judging her own actions. But whereas female sexuality was borderline vampiric in Antichrist, this time we’re in more ambiguous, contextually richer terrain, where desire is complicated not only by love, but also by a deep need for self-determination, and pride.