Condemn these films if need be, but isn’t sex central to our way of life? For example, look at daily TV and watch the way women appear on Fox News shows and ESPN Sports. Furthermore, that sure isn’t Stan Wood in drag giving weather forecasts every evening on Indianapolis TV!
Regardless, starting with “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1,” the viewer watches a man named Seligman, played by the accomplished Stellan Skarsgard, discover a brutally battered young woman lying unconscious in an alley as he walks home. When she refuses his request to call an ambulance or the police, he assists her to his apartment where at least he can be assured that she can take care of herself.
Both films unfold with the two of them remaining in a single room of his domicile, she lying in a bed with him sitting in a chair. Without shame or embarrassment, she readily admits to being a nymphomaniac. Drinking tea, her face badly bruised and still bloody, she politely asks, “Do you want to hear my story?”
Charlotte Gainsbourg is unnervingly understated as Joe, a nymphomaniac with no apologies. She is who she is, describing in occasional detail her sexual exploits over the years with men too numerous to count.
Most of the story of the first film tracks back to her teenage years where she perfected her craft. Don’t consider her to be a prostitute, as money was not an object. Casual sex was what she found profoundly enticing, and she had absolutely no attachment to her partners.
Since these are X-rated films, let me say that the sex is at times brutally aggressive to the extreme. Encounters take place in trains, alleys and bathrooms, and everyone is completely naked. The camera clearly shows that authentic sexual acts are taking place, so let your imagination run completely wild and you will not be surprised.
While the sex is at times mind blowing, which is also the only organ of the body that doesn’t get “blown,” both films are surprisingly held together by the appearance of a friendship that develops between Skarsgard and Gainsbourg. He’ll listen to her stories of sex and she’ll then listen to his stories about his love of music, books and fis
hing. You end up developing a bit of a warm feeling for the two of them. The question is, will it last?
Skarsgard is a busy actor, and his talent has been demonstrated in numerous films. Think of “Dancer in the Dark” (2000); “Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang)” (2001); all three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films (where he played Bootstrap Bill); “Mama Mia” (2008); “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011) and the “Thor” films, where he played the mentally challenged Erik Selvig (2011 and 2013). Need I say more?
Also, keep in mind that recognized actors like Christian Slater, Shia LaBeouf and Uma Thurman appear in small roles in the first film, with LaBeouf and Willem DaFoe appearing in “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2.” Slater plays Joe’s father, and it was rewarding to be reminded that Slater actually has acting talent.
LaBeouf, who I must observe appears in “la buff,” plays Jerome, a central figure in Joe’s life. They both enjoy having sex without rules, and Joe wrestles with the possibility that this may be the one person in the world she truly loves. You discover the answer to that question in the second film, but let’s get to that later.
The most spectacular moment in either film involves Thurman, playing Mrs. H, the wife of a renegade husband who is banging Joe. Confronting her cheating husband and his nymphomaniac squeeze at Joe’s apartment, she drags along her three young boys, all under the age of 10.
What follows is as outrageously funny as it is spectacularly unnerving. Uma will simply not shut up, actively involving her children in her outrage. In one classic moment, she takes her boys into Joe’s bedroom with the words, “Children, would you like to look at the whore’s bed?”
So that you are not misled, the movie starts to lose its cohesiveness in the last 20 minutes of “Vol. 1.” It involves an analysis of Skarsgard’s musical love of Bach combined with Gainsbourg’s vivid recollection on screen of the many penises she has seen in her life. As a criminal defense lawyer, let me simply say that the multiple pictures of men’s genitalia resembled a photo array in a twisted rape case.
In “Vol. 2,” you quickly learn that Joe made a tragic mistake trying to seek a bit of normalcy. She now discovers that the cost of a middle-class life is the loss of the ability to have an orgasm. Few in the audience were surprised!
Looking for an answer, she turns to S&M as the only alternative. There is nothing pretty about this girl’s life, although you eventually do discover what led to her bloody collapse in the alley where Skarsgard discovered her.
Listen, I know that many of you are prepared to simply say, “That’s it, I don’t need to read anymore.” However, that would be a mistake whether you want to hear that or not.
To begin with, the S&M encounters are vicious and brutal, yet unexpectedly successful. Sure, you see Joe being whipped by leather prods as she is tightly strapped over the arm of a couch, naked from the waist down. However, the end result is that it allows her to sexually come back to life.
Despite these films being dominated by sex, they are not erotic in any fashion. While it is easy to condemn Joe’s nymphomaniac past, director Lars von Trier’s films strongly suggest that we could apply that same analysis to most of our pasts. Do any of us live without some form of regret?
More to the point: Is disappointment, tragedy and aging any fundamentally better than the life Joe lived? Combined with the importance of sex, would any of you want von Trier to have Skarsgard and Gainsbourg play your life story?•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.