Intended to be released as a single film, Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac has been split into two parts due to its excessive four hour length. Originally slapped with the rare NC-17 rating by the MPAA, the film ended up being released without a rating and it’s clear to see why; Volume 1 is an incredibly explicit look into the life of a woman with a sexual addiction. It’s well directed and it features some great performances and a few scenes of fantastic, engaging dialogue. It certainly feels like an incomplete picture, but hopefully Volume 2 will address some of the themes that this volume doesn’t completely follow through on. Most traditional viewers will be turned off by the film’s premise alone, but they’ll be missing out on an ambitious and somewhat successful art movie.

While walking down the street, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) encounters a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten and lying in an alley. He takes the woman back to his apartment, in an attempt to nurse her back to health. She says that her name is Joe and she describes herself as a nymphomaniac and a bad person. Seligman doesn’t believe her, so she proceeds to explain how she became this way. She recounts her days as a young girl and how she first discovered her sexuality. As Joe grows into a young woman (Stacy Martin) she is prodded by her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) to engage with more and more men. It’s clear that she’s developing a problem and it’s made all the worse when she begins to fall for a young businessman (Shia LaBeouf).

A woman grappling with a sexual addiction may not sound like an entertaining watch, but the film is consistently engaging, even when it probably shouldn’t be. The problem is that we really don’t get to see any of the grappling that Joe claims to have gone through. We’re given a snapshot into her life and we see her engage with a lot of sexual partners, but the problem is that the film rarely introduces any repercussions for her actions. If anything, the film portrays her addiction as more of an inconvenience than a true problem. But this complaint isn’t entirely valid because I still have not seen Nymphomaniac: Volume 2. If the second volume deals more with the negative repercussions of sexual addiction, then the first volume will seem better as a result. But as it stands, Volume 1 feels incomplete in both its story and its major themes.

But even though the film feels incomplete, Joe’s exploits are continually fascinating to watch. The two hour runtime is divided into five different chapters, each detailing a specific aspect of Joe’s life and sexuality. The first chapter is called “The Compleat Angler” and Joe’s early sexual encounters are juxtaposed with a heavy handed fly fishing metaphor. The majority of this chapter highlights a night between Joe and B, where they try to sleep with as many men on a train as they can. The second chapter, “Jerôme”, shows Joe getting an office job and eventually developing feelings for her boss. Joe breaks up a marriage in “Mrs. H” and in this chapter Uma Thurman gives one of her best performances in years. Playing the wife of one of Joe’s lovers, it’s a performance of intensity and power. Thurman is so good in the small role that I didn’t even recognize her until the end of the film. The fourth chapter, “Delirium”, is the slowest and the weakest. Shown in black and white, we watch Joe spend time at the hospital with her father who is slowly fading away. None of it is very interesting and this is the area of the film where things begin to grow a little too artsy and pretentious. In the final volume, entitled “The Little Organ School”, Joe discusses three of her previous sexual partners and compares them to a musical cantus firmus.

With some great performances and some deliciously entertaining dialogue (the “Which hand do you cut first?” scene is fantastic) there’s a lot to appreciate here. Lars Von Trier is constantly interposing words and images onto the screen, creating a style that feels unique and refreshing. The problem is that observing the life of a sex addict should not be as entertaining as this makes it out to be. It’s certainly well made, but when the film came to its abrupt conclusion, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What’s the point?” Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 does a good job setting up a life of addiction, but hopefully Volume 2 will deal more with the consequences of it.

Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 receives 2.5/4

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