Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Berlinale: Nymphomaniac Vol. I Review

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacey Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Running time: 145 minutes (uncut) // 118 minutes (cut)

Release date: 22 February 2014

In typical Lars von Trier fashion, the buzz around his most recent two-part project has been steeped in hype and controversy. This is, however, his show and he is completely in control of its unfolding, holding the opening scene of Nymphomaniac Vol. I in a prolonged blacked out frame before introducing us to a series of scenic shots of an alleyway plagued by rainfall. It is a fitting location to begin the story - gritty, isolated, desolate - where our protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lies unconscious having been savagely beaten only to be happened upon by the ever-optimistic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Holed up and recovering with tea in an unassuming room in his flat, she recounts to him the details of her life, from childhood to present, on how her all-consuming obsession with sex has led to her damnation. Joe’s recital takes us through a series of sexual encounters, from childhood curiosity to competitive games created and engaged in with teenage friends, and onwards to even more extreme planes.

 It is structured in the manner of storytelling at bedtime, split into distinct chapters as we are pulled constantly from the depths of her story to the present day and back again. Chapters one and two chart the beginning of her sexual adventures; chapter three reaches frenzied heights with an incredible scene involving Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), whose understandable distress upon discovering her husband is leaving her and their three children for Joe has propelled her into a state of crazed sarcasm; chapter four - an Edgar Allan Poe infused fragment of black and white - shows Joe at her most vulnerable, concerning the only man she has ever truly loved, her dying father; and five conjures Joe’s detachment and discord in perfect harmony. What is instantly apparent is the contrast between the opposing factions of Joe determinedly damning herself and Seligman attempting to convince her of otherwise. It is far from a coincidence, and entirely significant, that Seligman means the happy or blessed man - he is slow to judge and quick to defend. Is it purely degeneracy or is it a natural biological curiosity and innate reactions, so customarily restrained by more civilised forces?

 Joe's nymphomania is presented in a complex way, weaving her recount of what in her eyes has been a sinful existence with Seligman's excerpts and interruptions regarding nature and art. The two become blended together almost, united in constant comparison, and you cannot shake the idea of the goodness and beauty of nature discounting the idea of sin. Even the set-up of Joe taking charge of this strange story-time creates a contrast between the innocence of a bedtime story and the iniquity of not only her story’s subject matter but also all that bedtime activity has come to mean for her over the decades. Humanity has had a consistently divided relationship and view towards sex and so it wouldn't really do, in this film that casts the subject in such a scrutinising light, to present a simplistic and one-sided narrative. It ensures the film doesn't go entirely one way or the other. Lars von Trier has never been one to flinch, and this latest offering is more than frank but not controversial for controversy’s sake. Its manifold perspective means you don’t even have to completely see it as such, should you choose not to.

 It may frequently indulge in the sort of close ups normally reserved for porn (achieved with the use of the brilliantly nicknamed 'cunt doubles'), but obviously this cannot be compared to pornography - it's far too sophisticated for that. What von Trier has achieved is a genuinely artistic and brilliantly choreographed film, not only on the subject of the lows, excitement and extremes of sex addiction but also all that may come with it - love (of sorts), apathy, confusion, psychosis. With Vol. II to immediately follow on the same release date, we've only just scratched the surface.

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