Nymphomaniac: Volume I (Magnolia Pictures, NR)

nymphomaniac 75Despite these early setbacks, Nymphomaniac settles into a rhythm, and is relatively enjoyable as the cast is rounded out. 

nymphomanic 500

Lars von Trier is one of those filmmakers who seems incapable of making an uninteresting movie, even if he does sometimes make movies that are less than good. That is to say, even a failure from von Trier tends to be worth seeing. His new film, Nymphomaniac: Volume I, is promising—von Trier tackling nymphomania seems like so obvious a match it’s amazing this film wasn’t made sooner, and also he’s coming off of one of the most critically acclaimed movies of his career (quite a feat for a director as admired worldwide as von Trier is) in 2011’s Melancholia.

As you can probably deduce from the title, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is the first of two parts, with Volume II set to be released theatrically in a few weeks here (and is available on demand now, as is Volume I). Distributor Magnolia Pictures has been vocal about wanting reviewers to keep their reviews for the two volumes separate (I’ve already seen both volumes I and II, which makes it kind of hard), but the way this film was made and released puts a lot of questions in mind: Did von Trier intend for the film to be split into two parts in the beginning? If not, at what point was that decision made? And why are there so many versions of the film floating around (there’s both a theatrical version and a director’s cut of each volume; the only thing available at the time of this writing is the theatrical cut)?

What all of this introduction is leading up to is this: As it stands, at least, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is kind of a mess. It has some interesting ideas, moments, performances, etc., and like all von Trier is worth seeing, but it doesn’t entirely work.

It doesn’t help the situation that most of the problematic elements of the film come early. The film’s main character, Joe, is played in adulthood by Charlotte Gainsbourg (here in her third collaboration with von Trier, where most actresses are wont to ever work with him more than just once), and the film begins with a meek man named Seligman (von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgård) discovering her battered body in an alley, whereupon he takes her back to his apartment, lets her clean up, and then listens attentively to the story of her life. Scenes with Joe and Seligman at Seligman’s apartment frame the film, and they’re all about the worst scenes in the movie—the acting is uncharacteristically bad (especially from Skarsgård), there are a lot of really thudding metaphors that are forced down your throat (most glaring is one comparing what Joe does to fly fishing), and the scenes as a whole read as very flat and kind of embarrassingly bad. Further, Nymphomaniac is divided into chapters, and the worst chapters are the first few.

Despite these early setbacks, Nymphomaniac settles into a rhythm, and is relatively enjoyable as the cast is rounded out. Joe in her younger years is played by newcomer Stacy Martin, who is just fine (as is Gainsbourg outside of the scenes she has with Skarsgård), and Christian Slater, Shia LaBeouf, and Uma Thurman turn in memorable supporting roles (especially Thurman, who is perhaps the best here she’s ever been outside of her collaborations with Quentin Tarantino). The chapterization smoothes out about halfway through Volume I and the metaphors stop feeling so heavy-handed. Plus, there’s a montage of close-ups of penises, which is more along the lines of what one would expect of a film about nymphomania as directed by von Trier.

Still, I can’t let slide the fact that it’s around the time the film gets going and stops being surprisingly bad that it’s over, and you’re left wanting for Volume II. That may be a good thing in terms of getting viewers to return to the theatre for the second part, but it’s bad in terms of leaving them decidedly unsatisfied. [trying really hard here to not make an unsatisfied nymphomaniac joke here] | Pete Timmermann

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