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New Release Review - Nymph()maniac (Volume I & II)

A nymphomaniac relates her life story.

Directed by: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LeBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Connie Nielsen, Udo Kier, Sophie Kennedy Clark




This review is based on the wide release version, which consists of two separately released volumes. After much deliberation, I’ve decided to review both parts as a whole, as if I were reviewing a TV mini series. After all, it makes no sense for a viewer to just take in one volume without its companion.

Returning home from a cornershop late one night, the elderly Seligman (Skarsgaard) discovers a middle-aged woman, Joe (Gainsbourg), lying in an alleyway, her body bruised and beaten. At first she is reluctant, insisting she deserved everything she got, but Seligman convinces Joe to return to his humble apartment. Once there, she immediately warms to him and begins to relate the story of how she came to her predicament, a tale which begins in childhood with her first sexual feelings and leads into her life as a nymphomaniac.
Early on in Volume One, Seligman states his belief that the world consists of two distinct personalities; those who when cutting their fingernails, begin with the left hand (the easier option, presuming of course you’re right handed), and those who opt for the right (the more challenging option). He himself falls into the latter category, while Joe proudly acknowledges she always opts for pleasure first. While Seligman is very much an intellectual, spending most of his life lost in books, Joe is quite the opposite, a sensualist who throws herself headlong into the world, be it fornicating with 10 men in one night or smelling the leaves she collected as a child with her father (Slater).
The two volumes are roughly split into the sensual Volume One, in which Von Trier gleefully explores Joe’s younger years (as played by newcomer Stacy Martin in what could be the standout female performance of 2014), where she embraces and indulges her love of sex like a frenzied animal, and the more intellectual Volume Two, which sees the middle-aged Joe denied her pleasures through various circumstances.
Volume One is the most exhilarating two hours of cinema I’ve seen in some time, an assault on the senses that moves at a blistering pace. Martin is a captivating presence and really sells the idea that she’s having a whale of a time with her libertine lifestyle. Volume Two takes quite a tonal shift with a much more studied pace, and is split into three chapters as opposed to the five of the preceding volume. In her Gainsbourg guise, Joe is having quite a miserable time of it, thanks to the emotional, physical and psychological wear and tear of her lifestyle. While Volume One is a thrilling celebration of sexuality, Volume Two is a grim look at the effects on an animal denied its carnal rights.
Von Trier’s films may explore some pretty dour subject matter but, like most great film-makers, he understands the importance of lightening the mood. Nymph()maniac is his most humorous work to date, at times rivaling the best of Woody Allen (a show-stopping cameo from Uma Thurman as a passive-aggressive woman scorned) and Todd Solondz (Joe’s hotel room encounter with a pair of well-endowed African brothers).
At times, however, it’s hilarious for the wrong reasons. Slater and LeBeouf present us with British accents so awful they'll have you re-evaluating Dick Van Dyke's. LeBeouf’s is particularly cringe-worthy, sounding like an Australian who spent his childhood in South Africa. Seligman’s insights, referencing everything from fly fishing to advanced mathematics, are laughably pretentious, though once we learn Joe is pulling a Usual Suspects trick on him, tailoring her stories to his interests based on the ephemera in his apartment, we're in on the joke. The on-the-nose music (a car is set alight to the sound of Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down the House’, the film ends with Gainsbourg covering ‘Hey Joe’)  that Von Trier scores the film with feels like the product of a na├»ve young film student. You can’t help think, however, that this is all part of Von Trier’s plan. Did he purposely cast his film with terrific actresses like Martin, Gainsbourg and Thurman and then offset them with hams like LeBeouf, Slater and the various wooden bit part players that Joe encounters? Is this film just one big practical joke, like the current Von Trier inspired “life as performance art” we’re seeing LeBouef act out? Who cares? Cinema itself is one big trick, and Von Trier is one of its greatest tricksters.
8/10
For the record, were I to score both volumes individually I would rate Volume One 9/10 and Volume Two 7/10. Due to the tonal shift, I recommend watching both Volumes back to back if possible.



Eric Hillis

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