Nymphomaniac, Volume 1 doesn’t leave you satisfied.
Nymphomaniac, Volume 1 didn’t reach any climax.
Nymphomaniac, Volume 1… pulled out too soon? Okay, I’m done. Sorry.
I don’t know if a film lends itself better to quippy, punny reviews better than Lars con Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Volume 1, yet my friend and I couldn’t stop talking about how we felt about it when we walked out of the theater. It’s an incredibly bleak, tonally confused film that leaves you feeling not emotionally devastated, but completely hollow. For a film about a nymphomaniac with buzz for its explicit sex scenes, I don’t think it’s even particularly about sex. If there’s anything it does well, it’s a film about emptiness that makes you feel its emptiness rather than actually say anything about emptiness, which is actually really cool in a modernist kind of way.
Now for what it doesn’t do well.
1. The Nymphomaniac Herself Is Incredibly Boring And Has No Character
For those of you who’ve read this far and don’t actually know what I’m talking about yet, Nymphomaniac is a film about a woman named Joe who is a sex-addict. You probably could have figured that out. Over the course of the film, we see her go from a teenage girl taking part in a contest on a train to see how many men she can have sex with before it reaches its destination, and by the end of the film we have a young woman juggling eight or ten different sexual partners a night.
And yet for a character so sexually promiscuous, I’ve rarely found the lead of a character-driven film so mind-numbingly boring. Her dialogue is stiff and simple and always delivered laboriously. Not that the amount of sex this woman is having means this is an especially believable plot, but I find it very difficult to buy how a character without any character is supposed to be so seductive. The fault probably lies in both the acting and the writing. Stacy Martin feels bland, has no chemistry with anyone (and it’s not like there’s a shortage of opportunities), and – like I said earlier – literally stumbles through every line of dialogue. Maybe I’m too much of a romantic, but I see nothing desirable about this.
And it’s not like she has anything particularly complicated to say. Save for one hilarious and fantastic line of dialogue leading into the first sex scene (“If I asked you to take my virginity, would that be a problem?”, which was priceless), nothing she says has any substance. The writing is so on the nose and simple that it creates a character with no depth. And speaking about depth and writing…
2. The Frame Story Analyzes the Story For You, So No Thinking Required
Nymphomaniac is a frame story. Old Joe is found lying injured on the ground by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), whom she then tells her (disjointed) life story to. For some reason. Where Joe’s character is insufferable, Seligman’s is irritating. He doesn’t just listen to her story, he analyzes it. To be fair, there are moments where this is necessary and where it does work very well, such as when he draws a parallel between a specific fly fishing lure – called a nypmh – on his wall that has caught Joe’s attention and her story. While it’s a little hand-holding, it’s a pretty central idea to the story, so it’s fine. But then he just never shuts up and he analyzes the movie for the viewer.
It’s one thing to have him simply draw a parallel between Joe’s story of seducing men on the train and fly fishing, it’s quite another for him to constantly interrupt to go on long explanations for how any particular detail from the story is just like fly fishing. And he doesn’t just do this for fly fishing, but through the entire movie with a wide variety of metaphors, and this doesn’t always work or even serve any purpose. The film stops while he goes on a second explanation of what Fibonacci numbers are, and you really just want him to shut up already.
The problem with this is that it gives the viewer so little space to analyze the film themselves, or even think about what they’re watching. It’s like the movie is too scared to leave an interpretation to the viewer and provides a constant running explanation of what’s going on the whole time. The film is so terrified by the notion of any individual metaphor escaping the viewer that it slaps them in the face with it, and speaking of each individual metaphor…
3. This Really Couldn’t Have Been Any Shorter?
Why is this a two-part movie with a total running time of five and a half hours? That’s half of the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, except with a much, much, much smaller scope. What necessitates this? What about this concept required a five and a half hour story? Was there really nothing that could be cut from this movie?
The narrative is split into eight “chapters” between the two movies, but rather than feeling like eight essential parts of a story, it feels more like von Trier simply came up with eight metaphors about sex and sexuality and loosely connected them around a central character. Like I’ve already said, this character is incapable of maintaining the viewer’s interest, and it’s likely at the cost of needing to be enough of a blank slate to support these eight disparate sex metaphors. First we’re talking about fly fishing, then we’re talking about polyphony, and at no point do we know why we’re talking about any of this.
Somewhat cynically, my friend and I came to the conclusion that the only real reason may just be a fascinating marketing ploy. It’s an interesting gambit to give your viewer the choice to walk in the middle of the story, because it demands a much stronger hand than Nymphomanic, Volume 1 actually has to play with. But at the same time, the anticipation of a second film released a month or so after the first one will keep you talking about it and thinking about it.
Overall, Nymphomaniac, Volume 1 is underwhelming and unsatisfying, but is intriguing enough to draw you back in to try to make sense of what’s going on, which might actually be the brilliant meta-statement about sex that you might have gone into this movie for in the first place.
Intriguingly, the single, solitary reason why I’m genuinely interested in seeing Volume 2 (as opposed to simply feeling obligated to finishing the story) is because of a combination of all three of my complaints. The only moment of Volume 1 that intrigues me about a direction this story might go in is when Seligman calls bullshit on Joe’s story. When Jerome (Shia LeBeouf) shows up in her life story a third time against astronomical odds, Seligman interrupts to say he can’t believe that really happened. For me, this is the only interesting thing Nymphomaniac does, and a direction I really hope – but really doubt – Volume 2 will explore further. There has to be something necessitating a frame narrative, and rather than explaining the whole thing to the idiot viewer, it would be way better if this all turned out to be done simply to question the way we construct identity and sex at all.