It began with a curious email Monday morning. The subject line was: SUNDANCE SECRET SCREENING. “We’ve put together an exclusive and super-secret screening in Park City during Sundance on Tuesday, Jan. 21st,” the email read. “Believe it or not, I can’t even tell you the title … Trust me that you’ll want to be one of the first to see this movie.”
My first reaction was intrigue, followed by annoyance. With 177 feature films screening during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival—and a butt-load of shorts—your scheduling faculties are tested daily, and many movie sacrifices must be made. While it was highly unlikely that this would turn out to be an Uwe Boll film, it would nonetheless prove doubly disappointing if this “secret” movie was a dud. The screening was at The Egyptian Theatre—an intimate 290-seat cinema that’s been around since 1926 and is, without question, the most recognizable of Sundance’s movie houses. The tickets we were given outside the theater had “FILM X” printed on them. And the Egyptian was packed with mostly journalists, filmmakers, and publicists, which was reassuring. I wasn’t the only one taking this film fest leap of faith. Around 9 p.m., festival director John Cooper took the stage.
“You’re all here because you’re friends of the festival,” he said. “And tonight’s screening is by a director who hates traveling.” He pauses. “OK, it’s Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.”
A loud cheer emanated from the crowd, followed by a collective sigh of relief. We were to be shown Part 1 (or the first two hours) of von Trier’s two-part sexual drama, which will hit U.S. theaters on March 21.
Nymphomaniac opens in darkness—as in the screen is literally black for what seems like a minute. Then, cinematographer Manuel Umberto Claro’s roving camera makes its way around an abandoned alley. There, a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lies bloodied and beaten on the ground. She’s discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a seemingly considerate and well-meaning older man who takes her into his home for a cup of tea. We learn that her name is Joe. “I am a bad person,” she tells him, before recounting her story of how she ended up unconscious in an alley.
“I discovered my cunt at age 2,” she says, narrating the story. And so it begins.
By 6, the inherently sex-addicted British child is playing a game called “frogs” with her equally lascivious best friend, B. The game consists of flooding the bathroom with water, hiking up your skirt, and then gliding over the stream. It’s the most disturbing scene of the film, given the age of the children (no nudity, thank god). Joe’s mother is a cold, distant woman, who plays solitaire with her back turned to the world, while her father, played by Christian Slater, is a kind, loving doctor who takes his curious young daughter on walks through the forest, instilling in her a passion for dendrology.
When Joe is 15 (and played by Stacy Martin at that age), she loses her virginity to a slightly older biker, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). “If I asked you to take my virginity, would that be a problem?” she asks him. And, eight pumps later—three in the front and five in the back—it’s over. “3+5 … those are the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence!” interrupts Seligman (more on his unintentionally hilarious philosophizing later). While most would be turned off to sex by such an unremarkable first encounter, it whets Joe’s appetite. She becomes insatiable.
In one episode, Joe and her pal, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), dress in what they call “fuck me” clothes—short leather skirts, tight tops—board a train, and see who can have sex with the most people during the trip. The winner gets a bag of candy. After taking several men to the bathroom for quickies, with Joe wearing a blank expression on her face during the trysts, she finds herself losing six to 10. But B is willing to give Joe five points if she successfully seduces a married man in the first class cabin. She performs oral sex on him—which we see, in close-up—and wins the prize.
Some years later, Joe is a bona fide nympho. Sex, for her, is empowering, and she enjoys the sway she has over men. With every new sexual partner, she tells him they were the first to bring her to orgasm. Here, we’re treated to a montage of close-ups of dozens of different, mostly ugly-looking penises of various shapes and sizes—presumably ones Joe has encountered. Joe, B, and her pals form a coven of sorts that’s dedicated to having as many random sexual encounters as possible—and never more than once with the same person. They chant, “Mea maxima vulva!”
With no skills per se and no college education, Joe applies to be a secretary at a firm whose boss just happens to be Jerome. He’s been infatuated with her all this time, but she rebuffs his advances, instead choosing to have meaningless sex with all the nerds in the office.
“The secret to great sex is love,” B warns Joe. And before long, she thinks she’s in love with him. But it’s too late. Jerome is MIA.
So, Joe goes back to her nympho ways. She has so many sexual partners—about eight different men a day—that she has to devise a scheduling system to keep them in check. The best episode of the first half of Nymphomaniac involves one of these partners—a middle-aged man who’s under the impression that Joe loves him (she obviously doesn’t), and leaves his wife and three young boys to be with Joe. When his wife, played by a fantastic Uma Thurman, and the three children show up at the apartment, all hell breaks loose. She, along with her children, demand a tour of the apartment, including what she calls “the whoring bed,” saying, “Come children, let’s see daddy’s favorite place!” Thurman is brilliant here and the sequence is even more powerful when you consider how close it hits home for her.
Let’s talk about the sex. There is lots of it, but it’s displayed in such an icy, detached style that’s far from titillating. We see the actors—Martin, LaBeouf, others—engage in many, many acts of unsimulated sex (i.e. full penetration). Von Trier, of course, is no stranger to showing real intercourse on film. His groundbreaking 1998 dogme-95 film Idioterne showed his actors engaging in actual sex. But in Nymphomaniac, the effect was achieved through CGI trickery. For example, in one scene, you see LaBeouf’s character penetrating a woman. The scene is shot from below while LaBeouf is standing and the woman is straddling him, so you see his shaft entering her while the actor’s face appears through the leftover space.
“We shot the actors pretending to have sex and then had the body doubles, who really did have sex, and in post we will digital-impose the two,” producer Louise Vesth said at Cannes. “So above the waist it will be the star and below the waist it will be the doubles.”
Cue jokes about LaBeouf plagiarizing his sex moves.
The scenes between the present-day Joe, played by the soft-spoken Gainsbourg, and Seligman, played by Skarsgard, alternate from poetic to unintentionally hilarious, as Seligman constantly compares Joe’s sexual exploits to everything from fishing (which he references constantly) to Bach. But other times, Joe will utter something that sticks with you, describing love as “just lust with jealousy added.” Regardless, the action flashes back to them far too often, disorienting the film and screwing with its pace.
Also, von Trier’s decision to make Seligman a Jew—albeit a self-described “non-Zionist”—is a strange one, given von Trier’s 2011 remarks at a press conference, “I understand Hitler … I sympathize with him a bit,” later adding, “Now how can I get out of this sentence? OK, I’m a Nazi.” It was a silly joke by a filmmaker who’s known for putting his foot in his mouth, but it still got him the boot from Cannes (he apologized for the statement, and later took it back). Making Seligman a Jew seems to be von Trier’s way of thumbing his nose at his detractors.
The first part of Nymphomaniac is a bit slow and disjointed, but I’m intrigued to see where this story ends up, and how Joe got to where she is. As with every von Trier film, there will be a zillion think pieces on whether or not the filmmaker is a misogynist. After all, this is a film about a nymphomaniac woman who’s found beaten in an alley, who thinks she deserved her punishment, and von Trier is known for delighting in making his female character’s lives miserable onscreen, whether it be the repeated rape of Nicole Kidman’s character in Dogville, Gainsbourg’s genital self-mutilation in Antichrist, or hanging Bjork in Dancer in the Dark. But for that, I’ll reserve judgment until seeing the film in its entirety.
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