Lars Von Trier’s Coitus Interruptus
‘Nymphomaniac Vol. 1’ is unsatisfying in more ways than one.
Published: February 19, 2014 (Issue # 1798)
At one point in Lars Von Trier’s new film “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1” Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character Joe says, “We are all just waiting for permission to die.” If Von Trier’s previous film “Melancholia” embraced the liberating ecstasy of total annihilation, “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1” is the sad, seedy comedown after the rapture fails to materialize. It’s no wonder the character longs for the grave.
Before the film, a disclaimer informing the audience that the movie has been censored with the approval, but not the participation, of the director appears on screen. The film’s producers have said that this was a commercial decision to allow the film access to more markets. With von Trier’s radio silence after his Nazi remarks during the promotion of his last film, who is to know exactly what to make of this. While his producers have been forthcoming on the subject, and both versions of the film have been edited by the same editor who worked on “Melancholia,” the move reeks of cowardice and avarice.
The film begins with an image of oily looking water running down a brick wall onto the lid of a trashcan. This is followed by a shot of a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe) lying unconscious nearby. That the first two things to detach themselves from the gritty surroundings are the trashcan and the main protagonist says a lot about the way Von Trier wants us to see the character. A Puritan at heart, the director casts Joe in the role of the redeemable harlot rescued from the streets.
The story is told in flashback as Joe narrates her erotic adventures to a voyeuristic fisherman named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who plays the voice of indulgent rationalism. Her sexual awakening, trawling train carriages for sex and the logistical problems of trying to schedule up to ten trysts a night are all illustrated with sarcastic humor and unsimulated sex. Shuttling between Seligman’s dreary room and the equally abject spaces Joe inhabits in her recollections, the film is a bleak portrait of the uses of lust and a rather tired, sensationalist rehashing of arguments about sexual liberation.
Taking literary convention as its cue, the first two-hour “volume” consists of five chapters and is a sort of “Delta of Venus” — Anaïs Nin’s collection of short stories written for a collector of erotica — which deals with omnivorous sexuality. With Gainsbourg as a scratchy-voiced Scheherazade and Skarsgard as the intellectual collector, or “the lucky one” as he remarks about halfway through the first part of the film, “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1” plays more like theater than cinema.
While von Trier nods to filmmakers Ingmar Bergman, Peter Greenaway and Stanley Kubrick through various visual and audio cues, his film focus on the voyeuristic and pornographic tendencies of the medium and claustrophobic psychological spaces.
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