Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: "The Nymphomaniac - Part 1"

Director: Lars von Trier
Runtime: 118 minutes

Before the release of Blue Valentine in 2010, the film was caught up in a ratings controversy after being slapped with the dreaded NC-17 marker. The given reason? Footage of Michelle Williams' character receiving and, *gasp* enjoying oral sex (never mind that it's possible to earn a PG-13 with male character receiving fellatio, albeit not too graphically). The film was, thanks to pushing from Harvey Weinstein (see, he is capable of good deeds!), downgraded to an R, thus removing the snickering connotation that the film was somehow pornographic. Sadly, issues of female sexual pleasure remain a thorny issue, often prompting overly sensitive, and sometimes backwards responses despite the leeway granted for men on film.

Now, barely four years later, Danish director Lars Von Trier is back with a four hour, two part film that might as well be a massive middle finger to the sorts unable to believe in a woman's capability for independent sexual pleasure. Premiering in a staggered format (a VOD release, followed within weeks by a limited theatrical run), only the first half of The Nymphomaniac is currently available in the United States. Though I suspect it might be difficult to fully assess the film without seeing both halves, this review will try its best to tackle Part 1 as its own entity (much in the vein of the separately released volumes of Tarantino's Kill Bill). 

Rarely one to coddle audiences with style or content, Von Trier's latest begins with a near silent montage of falling rain and snow, before a blaring grunge rock track tears through the soundscape. Von Trier is known for using cinematic techniques to put the viewer ever so slightly on edge (ie: the constant jump cuts in Dogville), and Nymphomaniac wastes no time in announcing that it will be no different. Whether the techniques work in service of the story is another matter, one that is harder to assess without the full film available. 

What is available is the progressively intriguing, albeit slightly stodgy, tale of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in her third von Trier film), as related to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the man who finds her beaten and unconscious in the street. Where Joe's life is built around only one pursuit, Seligman's is filled with many (fly fishing, poetry, history, etc...). As such, he takes interest in hearing Joe's story, and spends much of Part 1 commenting on the literal and metaphorical parallels between Joe's life and his own interests. 

It's a clever idea, even when von Trier's screenplay stumbles. Seligman's comparisons, more analytical and flowery than Joe's recounting, contain interesting references, yet some of von Trier's dialogue is a bit too stiff, and too academic. This is only reinforced by the grungy look of the whole production, keeping in line with the director's tendency towards minimalism in terms of design and visual variety. Thankfully Mr. Skarsgard, another frequent von Trier collaborator, is talented enough to soften the blow of some of the more stilted passages. 

Gainsbourg, on the other hand, is set aside, despite being the primary storyteller. Part 1 is concerned with Joe as a young adult (played by Stacy Martin), which means that Gainsbourg spends a lot of time merely narrating. As Melancholia and Antichrist showcased, the actress is more than up to the task. That's why it's frustrating to see the actress sidelined in a film that is all about her character. Martin is effective enough, but knowing that we'll eventually get to see Gainsbourg on screen in the flashbacks makes her part of the story feel more like a necessary hurdle to overcome. 

The supporting ensemble, meanwhile, are mostly adequate, with a few exceptions. Christian Slater gets the job done as Joe's caring father, while Connie Nielsen silently glowers as his distant wife. Joe's never-ending parade of lovers (clients?), are played mostly by unknowns, which is for the best. It's her story, after all, and focusing too heavily on the men would distract from the central, female journey. Unfortunately, the one lover (so far) played by a name is Jerome, who has the misfortune of being inhabited by Shia LaBeouf. While not a disastrous performance, LaBeouf's work lacks the spark or magnetism required, seeing as Jerome is something of an object of fascination for Joe. 

On the other hand, Uma Thurman nearly steals the whole movie as the abandoned wife of one of Joe's clients. Thurman's screen time likely amounts to less than 10 minutes, but she adds a much needed jolt to the proceedings, which at the point have started to drag a little. With Gainsbourg and Skarsgard increasingly removed as Part 1 progresses, it's not too surprising that Thurman is able to swoop in and run away with the show. The worst part of the performance is that it's so brief, and that the actress is unlikely to reappear in Part 2 (which arrives April). 

The Thurman sequence aside, Part 1's strongest moments tend to come from the scenes detailing Joe's methods and ideas about sex and love. Despite her love of an act of pleasure, her interests stem from a more detached view. Sometimes she uses it to hurt men, other times to trick or manipulate them. It's underscored with von Trier's offbeat, dark humor, which keeps the whole enterprise from drowning in pretension (in some cases just barely). The Nymphomaniac's script does need a bit of smoothing out, but the parts that work instill hope that Part 2 will be richer and more emotionally involving. Von Trier also deserves credit for turning down the shock value elements. 

Rather than sensationalize female pleasure, he captures it as something totally natural, which is probably Part 1's biggest triumph. All that remains to be seen is if he can better synthesize his academic and thematic ideas with his storytelling. That's what will ultimately make or break this sex-driven tale as it continues to be both mundane and bold with startling ease. At last, Denmark's enfant terrible is finally starting to grow up.

Grade: B

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