Because who doesn’t want a minute-long montage of penises of all shapes and sizes inserted into their film? Oh. Hello. You must be here to read what I have to say about Nymph()maniac: Volume I. I guess you’re in the right place. Why did I open with that line? Because it’s (1) something that happens in this film, so it’s a warning, and (2) it sets the mood quite well for a discussion about a movie in which one of the characters is, well, a nymphomaniac. The film uses far harsher words than “penis,” and it contains extremely explicit sex scenes. Be warned.
Here is how the story is framed. While wandering the streets, a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) notices a young woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lying in an alley, hurt and bleeding. He says he’ll call an ambulance but she retorts that she’ll have left by the time they get here. So, instead, he offers her a bite to eat and a bed to rest in. She then begins to tell him her life story about being a nymphomaniac, beginning at the age of two and right up until, presumably, a short time before Seligman found her. We only get part way through the story in Volume I, and will have to wait a few weeks to see the conclusion of Joe’s story.
There are chapter headings in Nymph()maniac, each of which contains a distinct portion of Joe’s life. The first one, titled “The compleat Angler,” involves a young Joe (Stacy Martin) and her best friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), boarding a train and competing to see how many people they could have sex with before reaching a predetermined stop. The prize? A bag of candy.
Now, why is it called “The Compleat Angler”? Well, Seligman isn’t a passive listener. He often jumps in to make connections with Joe’s story and real-world activities. The aforementioned example? He relates it to fly fishing. Extensively. Later, the Fibonacci Sequence and polyphony get brought into the mix. He’s also a very supportive person, continually telling Joe that she’s not the awful person she claims she is. Joe is very open about her life and Seligman is surprisingly receptive.
Nymph()maniac contains its fair share of graphic content. We’ve been assured that, while real sex was filmed, none of the actors were involved. Adult film stars were used and computer effects superimposed the actors into the shots. Or, perhaps, it was the adult film stars’ parts that were added later. Regardless, there’s a lot of explicit content — enough to make the claims of the film being pornographic almost warranted. This isn’t one to watch with the kids, although unless you’re completely unaware of the definition of “nymphomaniac,” you probably could have deduced that yourself.
It is not, however, erotic. Its intent is not to arouse or titillate. Nymphomania is not depicted as a good thing, and it has left Joe as a damaged and self-loathing individual. That intent is what keeps it from being pornographic. Joe is given a significant amount of depth as a character, too, and while we watch her recount her story, we get a strong glimpse into her mind and how her nymphomania has affected her.
What’s most surprising about Nymph()maniac is that it’s relatively funny. I know. This came as a very big surprise to me. Given the subject matter and the director, Lars von Trier, I did not expect to laugh for even a single moment. But there was laughter every few minutes. Joe’s deadpan delivery to some of the events depicted or even the ways the film cuts away to make its point about how sex with (at least) three partners (at different times) is just like polyphony — this is all darkly funny.
I’m never okay with films ending on a cliffhanger if there is no promise of a conclusion to that story. Nymph()maniac was initially one film that ran for over five hours. It has been trimmed down and split into two for its “wide” — if you can call it that — release. This means that even though Volume I ends on a cliffhanger, we will be able to see how Joe’s story plays out with the second chapter. Someday, I hope, the uncut version will be released outside of the few film festivals at which it’s been shown.
When one talks about a “courageous performance,” they talk about ones like what Stacy Martin has done here. She’s more of the protagonist, at least in Volume I, than Charlotte Gainsbourg, leading all of the stories that the older Joe is telling. Martin is frequently naked, and that does take a good amount of courage. She is not, however, vulnerable, as nudity often — when used for a point other than titillation — represents. Everyone in the film is emotionally stoic, save for a brief appearance by Uma Thurman. The emotional depravity is part of the point, so don’t take that as a knock.
Are you going to want to see Nymph()maniac: Volume I? Only if you aren’t repelled by the constant stream of explicit content it features. If you aren’t, then you’re in for an interesting watch in which the lead character’s sexual adventures are compared to less explicit things, such as music and fly-fishing. It’s thought-provoking, shocking, humorous, and it’s surprisingly entertaining given the content.