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Film Review: Nymphomaniac - Volume 1

By Muhammad Muzammal Columnist


Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Volume 1” is a dark, comical study on sex addiction, highlighting the effects it has on a person. The film stirred up controversy due to excessive nudity, but the sex scenes are quite tame and the real, shocking truth only comes when the film’s two main characters speak about sexuality.

On a cold, gloomy night, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a secular Jewish man, finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the pavement outside of a deli. As Seligman takes the vulnerable, beaten woman back to his home, Joe tells her savior that she’s a “bad human being” and is at first reluctant to be taken, but agrees upon Seligman’s insistence.

The film then shows an interesting contrast between Seligman and Joe as both characters return to Seligman’s house. The man is an intellectual whose life has been spent more on reading books than experiencing the things in them. Joe, who we figure is a sex addict through flashbacks, is a master of sex and is all experience, but lacks the brains of Seligman.

As Joe explains her entire life to Seligman, the movie contains esoteric moments like a discussion, which contrasts fly-fishing to copulation and memories of Joe as a young, seven-year-old girl who rubs water against her vagina for erotic pleasure. The unique thing about Von Trier’s film is to show how apathetic Joe is to the act of sex.

Consider the sequence where she loses her virginity to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), a biker boy with “big strong hands” who, unemotionally, has sex with her in a few thrusts. Joe’s indifference towards sex is shown in this scene and again, when she competes with her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) for chocolate by seeing who can have sex with the most men during a train ride.

The entire sequence is undeniably uncomfortable as we view young, underage girls sell their bodies for random acts of sex to strangers. Yet as I watched the movie, I was intrigued by what outrageous sexual act was to come next.

Joe’s flashbacks serve as a compilation of Lars Von Trier’s works, which include the lovely, sad “Melancholia” and the twisted, sadomastic “Antichrist.” In “Nymphomaniac: Volume 1” Von Trier releases a wreath of emotions, making it the director’s most complete work to date.

The film’s humor underlies the weird nature of its scenes. Recall the shot of three thick ropes from Joe’s gym class during her high school years. The ropes shake with a sharp tingle, reflecting the humping movement of Joe off-screen. The ropes, in addition to the strange actions by Joe, provide an awkwardly funny context to the scene.

There will be many viewers who will be offended by the film’s sexual nature, but it’s a great character piece on one of the most self-hated protagonists I’ve seen in a long time.

There’s a memorable line said by Joe in the film, regarding love: “Love is sex with jealousy added.”

Joe hates herself because she cannot love other people, for she believes loving others will break her affection for sex. She doesn’t want the jealousy, but she is also in need of love. That Von Trier is able to delve into the subject of loneliness is a testament to how satisfying his film is. I’m just hoping Joe finds love in “Vol 2.”

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