The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Nymphomaniac Vol. I

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is often referred to as a “bad boy” or an “enfant terrible”, among other things. There's no doubt his work is intentionally inflammatory and divisive. I love the guy, because no matter what I think of his films on an individual basis, I know I'm going to see something unique. Whether he's using the musical genre to tell a really somber story (Dancer in the Dark), turning the end-of-the-world sensation of depression into something literal (Melancholia), or showing an extreme close-up of a woman performing genital mutilation with a pair of scissors to punish herself (Antichrist), von Trier is equal parts artist and provocateur. That same quality is evident in his latest effort, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1, which is everything you'd expect it to be: shocking, provocative, and hypnotic. Only in a Lars von Trier film would you find yourself asking the question, “What was more daring: the aspect ratio change or the penis montage?”

Stellan Skarsgard plays Seligman, a gentleman who stumbles across a badly-beaten woman in an alley. She refuses his offer to call an ambulance, asking instead that he take her in for a cup of tea. He agrees, and once inside his apartment, the woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), informs him that she is both a nymphomaniac and a very, very bad person. Seligman insists that she is merely being hard on herself. Joe then begins telling her personal story, which involves discovering her sexuality at a young age and losing control of it from there. Stacy Martin plays Joe in flashbacks, as a wild teenager soliciting casual sex on a train, breaking up a marriage, and forming an unexpected connection to a former childhood crush named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Upon hearing these stories, Seligman tries to convince Joe that she was merely confused; Joe responds with a more personally damaging story each time.

When you hear that Lars von Trier is making a movie called Nymphomaniac, it's fair to expect a healthy dose of graphic sex. And yes, there are a few eyebrow-raising moments here, including what appear to be at least two instances of unsimulated oral sex. There's also that penis montage I alluded to earlier. These moments are fully in line with the filmmaker's style, which has always been about confronting viewers with uncomfortable imagery to force them into analyzing their own response to it.

What you're less likely to expect is how little of this material there is in Vol. I. (We won't know for a few more weeks what Vol. II will hold.) Large sections of the movie are Seligman and Joe discussing the moral issues related to promiscuous sex, as well as the reasons behind it. Is Joe merely a whore, or is she, as Seligman contends, confused and seeking the answer to something which eludes her? They have some very well-written conversations on this topic. The flashbacks don't jump right into the hot-and-heavy stuff, either. Instead, von Trier takes the time to set up the scenarios in which Joe unleashes her loosest behaviors. In structuring the film this way, we sense two things. The first is that sex gives young Joe a feeling of control. When, for example, she forces oral sex on a man heading home to see his wife, she gets off not on the act so much as on the fact that she got him to betray his own feelings. The second, and more important, thing we glean is that adult Joe is fully aware of the repercussions of her actions. She knows that the way she's wielded her sexuality has negatively impacted innocent people. Nymphomaniac: Vol. I doubtlessly offers up a few scandalous moments, but at its core, this is a psychological story about the perils of abusing sex.

The performances are generally very good. Charlotte Gainsbourg sympathetically wrings every last bit of remorseful self-flagellation from Joe, while Stellan Skarsgard provides a believable – and suitably counter – sense of empathy. Stacy Martin quite perfectly captures the reckless abandon of the younger Joe, showing all the conflicting feelings behind her sexcapades. The film is stolen, however, by Uma Thurman, portraying the scorned wife of Joe's one-time lover. She gets a powerful scene in which she barges into their love den, three boys in tow, to lay out her husband and his mistress. It's stunning work from Thurman. On the flip side, Christian Slater (as Joe's father) and Shia LaBeouf have noticeable trouble maintaining their English accents, which detracts from both performances.

Those are fairly minor issues. The biggest drawback of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is that it ends with a cliffhanger. This really is not a stand-alone movie. After successfully investing us in Joe's plight and raising some intriguing moral questions, it ends abruptly with the introduction of a tantalizing plot twist. Of course, all will be revealed in Vol. II, but that does Vol. I no favors. Still, so much of this film is provocative and unexpectedly emotional that it's worth seeing. Just be prepared that, like me, you'll be counting the days until you can get the rest of this captivatingly sordid story.

( out of four)

Note: Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 hits theaters March 21, but you can currently stream it on FlixFling, an on-demand streaming service.

Nymphomaniac Vol. I is unrated, but contains graphic sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.

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