I like Lars Von Trier's films. Actually, I love the majority of them.
Antichrist, Melancholia and Dancer in the Dark are all movies that I deeply admire. When Von Trier's name is on a film, I anticipate something special, or at least something so demented it has a certain unique character. I didn't love Dogville or Breaking the Waves, but I can still count those as admirable efforts.
So it's a real kick to my cinema-loving nuts to tell you that Nymphomaniac: Vol. I qualifies as a horrendous misstep from a normally reliable if somewhat demented auteur. This feels like a movie made by a guy running out of ways to shock his audience. It comes off as one long, boring, dirty joke that isn't nearly as shocking as its creator thinks it is. It's an embarrassing slog for a guy capable of so much better.
The film kicks off with a woman named Joe (Von Trier mainstay Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in an alley, beaten and bloodied. A kind stranger named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) stumbles upon her and brings her to his home. After Seligman gets her some tea and puts her to bed, Joe starts to tell a story about how she's a nymphomaniac, and relatively ashamed of herself.
This particular storytelling device, the old Princess Bride "let me tell you a story while you ask questions" technique, is a lame way to tie a film together. It's lazy filmmaking at its worst, and the film stops dead in its tracks whenever the action goes to Seligman's dark bedroom.
We see Joe in flashback (played by Stacy Martin from a teen through young adulthood), from the moment she loses her virginity to a scumbag named Jerome (the one and only Shia LaBeouf) through her young adulthood sleeping with as many as seven men a night.
We also see her father (Christian Slater) die in the hospital after a bout with delirium. As for his performance, let's just say Slater literally shits the bed. In fact, Slater hasn't quite shit the bed like this cinematically since appearing in Uwe Boll's awful Alone in the Dark.
Much has been made of the sex in this unrated movie, and there's plenty of it, with the occasional dick and vagina splashing right across the screen. There are also penetrative sex visuals and blow jobs, where Von Trier (according to the Internet Movie Database) apparently used digital body doubling with porn stars to make it appear that the likes of LaBeouf are truly doing the nasty on screen.
There's also the wonderful visual of man juice dribbling from Martin's mouth after she blows a guy on a train, and did I mention Slater really shitting a bed? It gets to the point where this feels more like a Jackass movie than a film by a guy capable of provocative, intelligently controversial cinema. Maybe this was supposed to be funny like Jackass, but I found it pretentious and tired.
Nymphomaniac was originally planned as a much longer film and, in fact, it has a second chapter (Nymphomaniac: Vol. II) that is already available on iTunes and Amazon.com. Perhaps viewing the full four hours of Nymphomaniac in a row will amount to a better experience. I'll admit that Vol. 1 feels incomplete and unimportant.
Gainsbourg is a captivating actress, and she isn't given much to do in Vol. 1. The next chapter seems to give her more to do than telling a story while drinking tea. Maybe Vol. 1 will make more sense when Vol. II unspools.
So, taken on its own, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 comes off as a real piece of trash. Perhaps miraculous things will happen in the second half. I'll be reporting on my findings in two weeks, when Nymphomaniac: Vol. II comes for an engagement at the Loft. Until then, I'll just sit and stew about how much Vol. 1 truly sucks.