Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (2014) Review
Sex is not a taboo topic in America. Sex sells, and sex is sold. Youth, health, strength, and beauty are worshipped; sex is idealized out of its realities. I say this because it’s important to understand going into a film like this that it’s not the fact that it’s about sex, or that it shows so much graphic sex, that matters. However, that’s what the filmmaker would have you believe to get your butt in the seat. He’ll flash vaginas and blowjobs in his trailer, and he’ll use O-Faces and suggestive parentheses in his posters, because he knows that’s why we’ll come (if not for his name). He’s not above acknowledging the titillation of the topic.
Once you sit down though, and you’re treated to a sensual opening full of small, amplified sounds and mysteriously beautiful industrial images, which is suddenly interrupted by a harsh, disorienting German rock song, you might realize that something else is happening. Because you’re in the hands of a man who, like him or not, has been creating beautiful, controversial, and richly metaphorical works of art for the majority of his career. This film follows that tradition. It’s marvelous to watch a master freewheeling so comfortably in his medium, and with the talent of so many stellar actors to back up his mission. So here’s the basic story: Joe is a sex addict found beaten and bruised in a snowy back alley by a kind, lonely older gentleman. He brings her into his home to help her heal, and to hear her story. And it’s quite the story.
At first I was a little taken aback because I didn’t expect so much narration, and I’m often not a fan of it. However, while once or twice it kept me from being “in the moment” of the flashback, I never felt it was intrusive here. In fact I believe, based on what else Von Trier was doing, that this distance was entirely intentional. I think this is because he firstly wants us to question the validity of some aspects of the story in its telling, as does the older man who’s listening in. Also, we see this older man constantly trying to justify Joe’s actions—in order to combat her numb self-hatred—by comparing them to patterns in nature, music, and geometry. What’s interesting is that, every time he brings up such an analogy, she goes along with it, working her story along the rules of the analogy. I think this is quite revealing about her character, about how she wants to be seen and felt by others, and wants to hold a special place within their frames of reality.
More importantly, I think that Von Trier is forcing us to fully consider two different perspectives on the same story. Not to prove that taking the “natural” view is more appropriate than an overbearingly ethical view, because sometimes the older man’s justifying perspective is undermined. Instead, this film reveals the complex nature of looking back, of reasoning why we are where we are. And through it all, the awkward and aching humanity of each character is so carefully intact that you can’t help but feel torn inside about some of Joe’s choices. It’s interesting that reflection adds so much to the way we live our lives, but it can also take so much away. This film, then, is a reflection on reflection…so far, that is. Of course, this interpretation is up in the air until we see how it ends. Stay tuned.