Lars von Trier . . . sigh. Is there any other “auteur” who works so hard to interest us in his films, only to punish us when we actually go see them?
Think of the genital mutilation of Antichrist, the emotionally deadening, end-of-the-world slog of Melancholia. He tortured Bjork and viewers (and listeners) with his death-row meta-musical Dancer in the Dark. And though Nicole Kidman got to kill all the jerks at the end of Dogville, her character had to be indentured and raped by them first. Even in his early, significant global success, Breaking the Waves, von Trier seemed able to reach a dramatic conclusion only by degrading then killing off his heroine.
The man has issues. Others might call it thematic interests.
Now comes his latest, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1. A title like that, he’s gonna get people in seats, right? So, of course, he gut-kicks anyone with even a flicker of prurient interest by starting his movie with a grim, slo-mo crawl through a rain-sodden alley. That’s where our heroine Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, longtime von Trier veteran) lies unconscious, bloodied and bruised.
She’s rescued and shepherded to the home of a stranger, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård, another von Trier regular), a gentle, learned recluse who gives her tea in exchange for her story. Or the first half of it, anyway.
If you think the anecdotes of a career sexaholic would be interesting, Nymphomaniac wants to correct you of your misapprehension. It offers coldly clinical scenes of sex, a photo montage of the ugliest male genitals the director could find, and hilariously pretentious dialogue. Oh, and if that’s not bad enough, Shia LaBeouf.
Though Gainsbourg’s Joe is telling her story, we see most of it embodied by a younger version of herself, played by newcomer Stacy Martin. Clothed or naked, Martin is a pleasant but not especially interesting presence. I guess an overarching reason to watch Nymphomaniac might be to see how this young, blank Joe becomes the worldly, frayed version played by Gainsbourg. I suspect, though, that von Trier is not really interested in a big-picture character study along those lines.
In their deeply unconvincing conversation, the older Joe and Seligman organize her erotic recollections based on subjects or opinions that are both arbitrary and fussily precise. It’s the sort of talk you’d expect from a grad student trying to show a wide range of interests: fly-fishing, Bach and musical theory, the gaucheness of eating rugelach with a cake fork, species of trees.
Gainsbourg and Skarsgård handle their exchanges with a degree of quiet conviction. (Translation: they keep from laughing out loud.) Others don’t fare as well. Uma Thurman, though game, can’t really do much as the wife of one of Joe’s conquests. The character brings her three young sons to the girl’s flat, politely asking is she can show the boys “the whoring bed” that has ruptured her marriage. Then she stays on for tea, in a protracted scene that is neither plausible nor believably surreal enough to be funny, while the other characters sit around saying nothing.
Christian Slater turns up as young Joe’s father, mainly to have a dying hospital scene that lets him simulate crapping his bed and having a howling seizure — the sort of thing much younger people think “acting” is all about. And LaBeouf, well, he convincingly plays a narcissist with not a lot going on upstairs.
So yeah, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 bored and irritated the pants off me. But, you know, not in a sexy way . . . For some reason or other, I continue to want to give von Trier a chance. It’s vestigial. I admired Breaking the Waves and Dogville, and parts of Dancer in the Dark. And I loved his prankish, supernatural Danish TV miniseries The Kingdom (not to be confused with Stephen King’s pedestrian adaptation for ABC 10 years ago.) The sly, funny man who made that work has been missing for a while.
Whether he means to be playing a mean joke on his ticket buyers, or if he’s just tone-deaf and doesn’t realize his work is hollow — well, it doesn’t matter. He’s refusing to give us any laughs, insight or pleasure. His movie is the equivalent of a word that starts with “m” and ends with “asturbation.” Well, at least he’s getting some pleasure out of his work . . .
At the end of his new movie, the older Joe cries out, “I can’t feel anything.” From the audience, you may want to shout back, “Take a number, honey.”
Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1. With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, Uma Thurman, Shia LaBeouf. Written and directed by Lars von Trier. 118 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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