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Movie review: Nymphomaniac: Volume I

Bolstered by a game acting ensemble and dark humor, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is a rewarding experience for those willing to tolerate the prosthetic genitalia.

May 3, 2014 | 11:44 a.m. CST

Lars von Trier’s latest effort involves no less than eight sex doubles and numerous enhancement effects. But don’t let this stop you from enjoying the film’s many worthwhile attributes. The Danish writer-director’s natural mode is to shock and provoke, and while Nymphomaniac: Volume I certainly makes the average filmgoer uncomfortable, it also jabs at our modern prurient tendencies.

The film’s skeleton is based on a charming two-person setup involving Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), an older man, and Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a sex-crazed woman. As Joe narrates the erotic details of her life, particular incidents are presented episodically focusing on her sexual maturity as a young girl (Stacy Martin). From there it’s a string of sexual encounters and conversations involving many familiar faces, such as Christian Slater as Joe’s nature-loving father, Shia LeBeouf as her first sexual encounter and Uma Thurman as the raging wife of one of Joe’s partners.

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von Trier has always had a gift for stripping performers bare under emotional and sexual duress. In Nymphomaniac, he manages to provoke Thurman’s best performance in years. But she is also an outlier in the film’s very controlled techniques and presentation (another hallmark of the director). Many of the sex scenes here are presented academically and casually, building blocks instead of glorious encounters. Martin acquits herself fine as a young Joe, but her blankness makes her more of a cipher than a substantial figure to latch onto. The ease in which Skarsgard and Gainsbourg slide into their increasingly flirtatious rapport does not help her by comparison, either. To be fair, however, her character arc is not complete (the original four-hour running time has been cut into two editions).

von Trier is an estimable director. His camera steadily juggles the time lapses and lovemaking, and cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro’s browns and tans flatten the palette and further the bleakness of Joe’s childhood. This is an inherently incomplete film. The bold, provocative von Trier is unable to fully emerge, but Nymphomaniac: Volume I is moderately engaging and confident on its own as art house cinema.

Vox Rating: V V V

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