Nymphomaniac: Vol I (All About Eve)

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When Stellan Skarsgård finds Charlotte Gainsbourg unconscious in an alley, you believe he could carry the bleeding woman to authorities, take her in after she refuses care, you believe he’d serve her tea. Yet, Skarsgård is a familiar to filmmaker/provocateur Lars von Trier, and most memorably played a bedridden husband encouraging his puritanical bride (Emily Watson) to seek pleasure in the world of men (1996’s Breaking the Waves). For von Trier sex, especially when wielded by women, is a destructive force. And so despite anyone’s ability to see the distinguished Skarsgård as Seligman, the quiet fly fisherman and Good Samaritan, I can’t. For every non-judgmental urging he gives Gainsbourg to continue her horrifying parable about self-destruction through promiscuity, all I can think is “he atones for his sins.” (If von Trier ever does an AMA, I’ll ask if he can make a rotting fox carcass say it.) If it’s not deliberate, fine, but I won’t see it as accidental or convenient.

Nymphomaniac Vol I is the origin story of a semi-intentional villainess. Jo (Stacy Martin as the younger Gainsbourg) screws randomly and plentifully, occasionally validating her urges as a “rejection of love.” Jo may be ambitionless and unskilled (her first job is a joke) but she successfully organizes her sex life to evade attachments. She joins a girl cult who chants in “the devil’s chord” to uphold the vulva and evade relationships, she rolls dice to elect which lover will get the boot, and competes in a screwing duel on a train to win a bag of chocolates. It’s comically grotesque Jo’s prize for being too much of a woman is a bag of candy; it’s another thing to bind her to childhood and prove you can’t spell “meaningless” without M. E. N.

Naturally, Jo’s anti-relationships hurt people, and the traumas they produce are occasionally horrible, but von Trier deflates them each with either humor or absurdity. When one of her callers refuses Jo’s rejection and tries to move in with her, his betrayed wife and children drive him to her apartment. Uma Thurman, as Mrs. H, dangerously vacillates between embarrassing reserve and gut-wrenching outbursts yet still wrestles a guilty laugh out of you without your permission. There’s a stunning amount of Nymphomaniac that suggests a rape we implicitly condone—this feels weirdly activist-minded given the movie ticket we bought is for arty porn—yet everything here is tentatively laced with consent. Von Trier is pretty staunchly unclear about the “origin” of this malady or carrier (does the Anti-Christ have an anti-origin?). To an extent, he’s exploring much of the same matters here as he did in Anti-Christ, if more explicitly (metaphorically and literally) because the “anti” nature of Jo is so central to the story. What values does cinema hold in higher regard than childhood, love or heroism? Jo subverts them all AND looks great naked. Von Trier added a few objectifying dong Polaroids (for full frontal gender equality?) and the movie markets itself. After, you'll want a shower.

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