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By Francesca McCaffery

With his latest film NYMPHOMANIAC, bad boy and cinematic provocateur Lars von Trier has found a way to communicate through film that is rarely felt, even in literature

: Whether you agree with what is being portrayed onscreen, or not, you still have the feeling of being spoken to in the most profound of ways- both cerebrally and viscerally- the sheer ride that only  the most dazzling, life-changing novel can offer.

NYMPHOMANIAC, VOL 1, is one of two films, (Vol 2 being released in the US in April ) both released in their uncut, European versions. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe, who meets lonely bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) only after he finds her lying, curled up, bloody and beaten, in his courtyard as he goes out to get his daily cup of coffee and rugalach.

As Seligman begins to tend to her, much like a kindly Grandma (hot tea, fresh PJs, warm bed) , Joe starts recounting her tales as a sexually voracious young woman, as Seligman patiently listens. Offering both counsel and repartee to her increasingly more self-loathsome stories.

In flashback we see the young Joe (waifish newcomer Stacy Martin), colt-like and doe-eyed, just how much power she has over men, “simply by smiling at them.” (It doesn’t hurt, either, that she looks like she just wandered straight out of a Marc Jacobs ad.)  Time flips around, and we observe Joe as a little girl- as she learns to masturbate on a wet bathroom floor, hang on ropes “endlessly” in gym, and become fascinated with the way her own body operates, and, as Joe bluntly says, “my cunt.”

Her father (Cristian Slater- a fine, simple performance) is a kind doctor who teaches her about the history about the lovely ash trees in the forest on their daily walks,  and  her mother, a dirty blonde domestic ice queen (Connie Nielsen), is a “cold bitch.” Aside from seeing that her Mother is unsatisfied and distracted by domesticity, it  is hard to deduce from Joe’s upbringing that her extreme sexual behavior is the “result” of anything.-except for a truly lousy first time, which she herself orchestrated completely. As Joe hits adolescence, forms an actual “club” of like-minded, self-worshiping teen girls who throw away the concept of love and monogamy (they are allowed to have sex with any individual man only once) like sexy anarchists, and proceed to sleep around with whomever they wish, whenever they want.

Joe is always firmly in control of her choices, as are her friends, even after her best friend is the first to go down, fervently whispering to her that the “secret ingredient to sex is love!” (Yes, this phrase is uttered several times throughout the film.) Joe picks her men, randomly decides who to continue seeing as it becomes increasingly harder for her to juggle her myriad stable lovers (fat, tall, leonine, lovely, tender, old, young, ugly, married, single, gorgeous-she has no obvious type or  preference.) She is having sex to have sex, and we see Joe is screwing a lot.

The action goes back and forth, present to past, and Seligman, kind and non-judging of Joe’s extreme behavior,  likens the way Joe and her friend start out their “hunt” of men to fuck on a  first train ride outing wearing there “Come Fuck Me” clothes  like carefully baiting the lure in fly-fishing.

As Joe grows older, and is forced to get a boring job (medical school was too rough for her overly-sensitive self, she tells us in voice-over) she meets and finds herself falling in love with Jerome (Shia La Boeuf) who has also appeared in the beginning of the film (I won’t spoil it for you.) As she chastises herself for feeling this way, sentimental and woozy with actual desire, her number of lovers increases, until, like saying banana over and over and over again, the act seems, even to the viewer, to distinctly and abruptly lose all of its meaning and purpose. As an audience, we are almost bored with the way the sex depicted, which is a fantastic achievement of the director’s.

It has been said that von Trier cast actual porn stars to perform the actual live sex scenes in these films, and then digitized the actor’s “heads” onto their bodies, accordingly. As this wasn’t stated in the official press notes, I cannot say for certain, but this, along with the rest of the brilliant, peek-a-boo press campaign,  only serves to elevate the pain underneath the action.. As we watch, and cannot be sure who is actually really doing what,  the actors themselves become as desexualized as the acts portrayed themselves. We can begin to really focus upon the story…Or…is there one, after all?

Did Joe simply make a choice, a careless selection, not to care, destroying hearts, families and feelings along the way as she tears through the lives of her often unnamed lovers? Uma Thurman is simply devastating as “Mrs. H,” a wife of one of Joe’s “lovers” (only known as “H”) who has left his family after Joe, desperate to shake him off, tells him that she can’t be with him unless she all of him. The plan backfires completely as Mr. H returns, suitcase in hand, and Mrs. H, creeps up to Joe’s “bohemian” flat towing her three tiny young boys, beautifully beginning to unravel in the span of five minutes. (Seriously- Thurman is so good in this film.)

As Joe begins to realize the devastating internal results of her seemingly unconscious actions, and we are left with a scintillating preview of Volume 2 as the credits role, one is left pondering many questions, barely remembering the actual sex acts and displays of promiscuity.

It is almost as if, like the sex acts depicted themselves, von Trier is also asking us to look at our own personal “stories,” and the great, often unnecessary weight we put on them. This director is not a light-hearted guy. Films like Breaking the Waves and Antichrist deal with a world that will dole out random, tragic events like a farmer throwing seeds onto an endless, muddy field. His most recent film, the stunningly gorgeous  MELANCHOLIA, (which he made after a bout of severe depression) was far more considered, asking us to question our own personal fate in terms of the majesty and self-containment of the entire universe.

As Seligman far too easily and almost primly  repackages Joe’s recountings as merely  accounts of  severe “addiction,” von Trier is not asking us to consider why the need to be so distracted so intently is quietly eating away at our society and culture; he is asking us to consider the ‘addict,’ if you will,  and why their own story is any different from choosing to live a life more guided by compassion, kindness and self-esteem. “We are all waiting for permission to die, anyway,” Joe informs Seligman. She has the last and final say, and everyone is going down with her ship-everyone who chooses to be on board, that is. The director is no moralist, here, though: He has made a film about a woman who has elevated her own sickness to a sole and profound Identity, and asks us to question what we live by, how we define ourselves, and where we stand.

By the way, Gainsbourg, as you probably can imagine, is simply wonderful , and we hear in her lilting, tarnished voice a woman so purely hating and so desperately hating herself, but looking for no redemption, no resolution, and no forgiveness, either, whatsoever.

Sensationalism aside, please forget the actual hysteria and promise of “unheralded,” explicit sex scenes in the film itself, and go for the way it makes you feel, think and analyze your own place in the world.  This film makes you work , and von Trier perhaps has almost had to  resort to utilizing depictions of graphic sex as the gateway drug to shock us right back into our heads and hearts.  Maybe he is saving his moral judgment for  us-the audience-as viewers…That we, much like Joe, need to be tricked into seeing and feeling and interpreting something, anything,  intimate and profound without being completely and utterly scared.

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