Peculiar Netflix Picks: ‘Nymphomaniac: Vol. I’

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Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recalls her erotic life-story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Photo via nerdiest.com

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recalls her erotic life-story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Photo via nerdiest.com

“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” is surprisingly more impressive than the title suggests. No, it is not a porno – there is far more to the story than that – but it does make viewers extremely uncomfortable. With the film’s lack of a rating, it is not hard to imagine where director Lars von Trier takes the story.

The film opens up on a cold winter’s night. Everything in the city is quiet as the snow blankets the ground. The camera focuses on a woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lying unconscious in the middle of an alley, covered with cuts and bruises. Middle-aged Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers Joe and brings her back to his home, giving her food and a place to rest.

When he asks Joe how she ended up in the alley, Joe answers with a line that she repeats often throughout the film:  “Because I’m a horrible human being.”

Joe goes on to tell her story through a series of flashbacks, beginning with when she was just a two-year-old who discovered the sensation of her genitalia. She talks about her curiosity, how she grew up just itching to feel a sexual sensation. Sensation, Joe says, is something she came to love.

Objects in Seligman’s home cue Joe’s memory of different “chapters” to her story. “Vol. I” is split up into five chapters. Each chapter is labeled with a title in the film. The chapters serve as a foundation to one another as Joe describes the many lives she ruined in order to selfishly achieve sexual pleasure.

The story becomes surprisingly multi-dimensional at times. von Trier, who also wrote the screenplay, works in fascinating analogies to Joe’s story, like Seligman’s comparison of fishing to pursuing sex where Joe is a fisherman and men are fish.

A variety of familiar faces appear during the flashbacks. Uma Thurman plays Mrs. H, the wife of a man with whom Joe has an affair. Thurman’s performance is rather electric, fitting nicely into the context of the story. Jesper Christensen, known for playing Mr. White in “Casino Royale,” plays the boss of a printing company. The most surprising supporting actor is Shia LaBeouf as Jerome, Joe’s one and only love. Plus, there is nothing weirder than seeing Louis Stevens from “Even Stevens” getting it on between the sheets.

The strong chemistry between Joe and Seligman becomes a particularly intriguing element of the film. The two have polar opposite personalities; one lives a reckless, erotic lifestyle, and the other a tranquil, reserved one. Yet Gainsbourg and Skarsgård exchange dialogue so naturally that we forget about the difference in temperaments.

One fault I did find with the film is von Trier’s excessive nudity and graphic sex scenes. Both male and female are completely exposed during spontaneous sexual encounters throughout the film. While I understand why von Trier would choose to do this, the film would have been just as effective without the exposure. This film is certainly not one to watch with the parents.

In all honesty, I came into “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” not knowing what to expect, and it blew me away. The flashbacks reveal that Joe’s character is deeper than just a typical nymphomaniac. She tells her life-story, attempting to explain to Seligman why she is a “terrible human being.” The further she goes on, the more she and Seligman realize that she is defending her personality. “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” sets up an interesting backstory to an intriguing character.

★★★

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