How to create anticipation according to Nymphomaniac: 1) have a director veiled in controversy, who is unwilling to talk about said controversy or at all; 2) create the best poster campaign in years; 3) employ actor who is willing to wear a paper bag and quote Cantona. It certainly worked. Lars von Trier’s four hour opus has had people talking since that first teaser shot was released over a year ago. Now it is finally here and the Phoenix is sold out.
Von Trier opens his epic with ambience-filled darkness. The darkness rises and we find Joe (Charlotte Gainsborough) upon the floor, bloodied and bruised, with snow slowly falling. She is found and aided by Seligman (Stellen Skarsgård) to his bare, dingy flat, fed tea and encouraged to tell her tale.
Vol. 1 is told in five chapters, each of which is bookended by the musings of the quickly formed comedy odd-couple: Joe, the self-confessed nymphomaniac and social pariah; Seligman, the 60-odd year old virgin, whose life is the books that surround him. It is these musings that accompany the tales of young Joe (Stacey Martin) finding her sexuality, embracing it whole-heartedly and then losing its sensation.
I can be forgiven for not expecting this humour – the trailer was sounded by Rammstein after all. However, this light-heartedness is the highlight of Vol. 1. Whether it be found in one of Seligman’s many digressions – Fibonacci, fly-fishing or Zionism (subtle, Lars) – or in the bizarre, other-worldly tales of Joe.
The style of this first film mirrors the playfulness of the script – interspersed archival footage, split-screens and screen-filling graphics create a carefree mood. This is not to say that the film is without seriousness; the chapters Mrs H and Delirium showcase that.
Mrs H sees Uma Thurman as the cheated wife confronting Joe and her estranged husband. This acts as the first reality check for Joe, whose sexual voyage thus far had seemed harmless. Swinton is magnificent; her calm facade deteriorating to complete agony at the infidelity. Delirium, in contrast, is not related to Joe’s sexuality. The agony of witnessing a loved one’s slow demise is played out in monochrome. This is one of the few parts of the film where we see Stacey Martin lose her nonchalance, which otherwise dominates her performance, and adds depth to the youthful Joe.
However, there is a persistent problem with Vol. 1 – Shia LaBeouf’s accent. Hollywood’s most confusing actor plays Jerôme, Joe’s one persistent love interest, whose voice flitters between bad-British, Australian and something akin to Leonardo’s “Rhodesian” twang in Blood Diamond. You question whether it is purposeful of just shoddy acting; whatever the answer, it’s annoying.
Aside from this aggravation, the acting is on point throughout and relationship between Gainsborough and Skarsgård is exceptional. However, the sex scenes, though well done, felt overly fake. Yes they were explicit, but barring one instance they were more porn-world instead of real-world. This, I felt, detracted from the overall emotional context of the sex scenes.
With the first half of Nymphomaniac over, I felt slightly deflated. Vol. 1 didn’t feel like a complete piece. “That’s why Vol. 2 is there” is the answer – but this film is being released stand alone and does not work as such. It wasn’t the full exploration of a woman’s sexuality that I was hoping for, but it was superbly funny and, from the flashes of Vol. 2 that appear in the credits, a much easier ride than what is to come.