Lust for Life: Charlotte Gainsbourg Becomes Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

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Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, left) tells the wise older hermit Seligman (Stellan Starsgård) all about her life as a nymphomaniac.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, left) tells the wise older hermit Seligman (Stellan Starsgård) all about her life as a nymphomaniac.

Lars von Trier has never run away from controversy. The Danish enfant terrible has rather made a career out of embracing it – whether by being banned from the Cannes Film Festival for fascist remarks or by tackling the lives of mentally challenged people in Idiots. Whereas his 2011 feature, Melancholia starring Kirsten Dunst, was a lugubrious ballad about the world’s end, Lars von Trier returns to his familiar stomping grounds of explicit sex and violence in his new double-dip Nymphomaniac with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Starsgård, and Shia LaBeouf.

The middle-aged woman Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found beaten up and motionless in a forlorn city alley. A man named Seligman (Stellan Starsgård) saves her life and takes her in. When she returns from her blackout, the mysterious woman tells him that she is a nymphomaniac and starts to recount her life story – beginning with her earliest sexual encounters as child and her first intercourse as a teenager (Stacy Martin) with the noncompliant Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Seligman, on the other hand, tells her about his wide range of interests, be they Fibonacci numbers, fly fishing, or organ music.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I works with the assumption that Joe has been naturally pent-up sexually all of her life, and that the only way to release these desiderata is by becoming experimental with all sorts of different partners. She may be eternally guilt-ridden for doing so, but she doesn’t have or know any other outlet. In the course of her elongated story, Joe experiences both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The opening half of the two-parter allows her to go into lengths about both exotic encounters just for sex and more emotional ones, such as some of those involving Jerome.

What the first bit demonstrates is that, not only is Lars von Trier back in his element, the realm of sex and violence after the extremely brutal Antichrist, but also the double standard that our Western societies have always applied to strong, liberal, promiscuous women. Joe goes about her dependence the way probably most male addicts would do. She gives in to it, proverbially selling her own grandmother in the process. Some men might be applauded for behaving in such a manner; Joe, in contrast, becomes more and more of an outcast.

She is gradually rejected by society and loses some of the people dearest to her, to the effect that, at the end of the first part, she even doesn’t feel any sexual pleasure at all. Her clitoris and vagina seem to have stopped working, so that ‘diddling her skittle’ is no longer enough. We’ve seen Charlotte Gainsbourg going to extremes for Lars von Trier before, and he’s ‘been there, done that,’ showing her explicitly mutilating herself (and Willem Dafoe as her despised spouse) in Antichrist. His latest project doesn’t go that far.

In Nymphomaniac: Vol. I newcomer Stacy Martin does most of the heavy lifting for his female muse in terms of nudity and graphic sex scenes. Charlotte Gainsbourg, on the other hand, is basically restricted to the role of a storyteller who painstakingly recreates her own life story for the enigmatic and ascetic hermit Seligman. While Joe frequently curses herself and considers herself a morally corrupt human being, he nerves her in her methods, to the extent that she’s supposed to feel that only her way is right.

Lars von Trier employs an interesting range of music for Nymphomaniac: Vol. I to hammer his point home. The heavy Teutonic sounds of Rammstein, of course, always prove to be fruitful as soon as aggression, be it sexually or otherwise, is involved. There could hardly be any bigger contrast between the band’s display of energy and virility and the fragile “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ” by Johann Sebastian Bach, Lars von Trier’s nod to Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction epic Solyaris. When attempting to draw a parallel between the two movies, you can argue both male-female combinations appear to be out of this world.

Likewise, the first volume of Nymphomaniac finishes right in the middle of Joe’s tale, leaving both her and us as the viewers rather unsatisfied and wanting for more. The sudden end has the feeling of a coitus interruptus, before spectators could ever dream of experiencing a cinematic orgasm. Lars von Trier, however, wouldn’t be a good salesman if the exposition of Nymphomaniac didn’t create enough interest in how Joe’s story goes on. It does.

To be continued…