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This is a review of Nymphomaniac Vol. I (followed up with a review of Vol. II)
For a minute or two, the screen is dark, but with noises of what sounds like a railway, running water, a creak – which is what cinema is until we come to interpret it, the things with which we are presented and what they might mean. Will we even believe what we are shown, if someone is telling a story ?
Then, in what does not seem like an actual crooked alleyway, a woman lying (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and a man who has no reason to go there to find her (Stellan Skarsgård) : establishing that she does not intend to stay there, if he goes for help, a request for a cup of tea with milk leads directly to her propped up in bed, in his pyjamas, in a room with dingy, peeling wallpaper, almost out of place and time. (She gets tea, but without milk.)
As is what little we see of the exterior world, which is supposed to be Britain, but the interiors have a continental feel to them, and – even if the ticket-collector does have a British Railways badge – did trains ever seem so German in recent times ? These things aside, another bargain between Joe and Seligman, that she will explain why she thinks herself so bad, if he promises to listen to everything. A narrative that begins I discovered my cunt at the age of two is self-consciously a Freudian case-study, whatever else it might be.
In NYMPH()MANIAC, @KermodeMovie (http://t.co/EB0LlMKXwp) sees the parentheses only as a vulva, not a null set - who / what's worth nothing ?
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) March 4, 2014
The director may have tied Seligman into the bargain, but around two hours is only half the story, and does he risk half his audience not caring to come back for the rest ? So far, the mix includes resentment at an invited deflowering by an older boy, a game of conquests with a friend, an attempt to adhere to one-night stands, a little of The Dice Man thrown in for good measure, a monochrome sequence in a hospital unlike any that it seems to be supposed to resemble, and coincidences that have Seligman wondering whether the line that is being spun belongs, where we started, with The Compleat Angler.
Do we understand, or want to understand, the younger Joe (played by Stacy Martin) whom we see ? Are the increasing analogies that are being used, which twice pop up on the screen in big white letters the words Cantus firmus when Seligman is explaining how a work of Bach’s is put together, interposing layers of irritation, even if Joe thinks that it explains the parts to what she wants from three lovers ? In terms of the film, it is just taking time to display the three lovers separately, and together, in bands when, if it means anything to her, it is not a visual concept.
Amongst other things, the diagrams of streams, of layers of water within them, of the physics of parallel parking, and of the Fibonacci series and how succeeding terms are calculated, von Trier plants all these on the screen, but he would not need to, if his characters were adequately equipped to express themselves (or could be relied on)* ? Who Seligman is and what he has done, we do not know, but he tells Joe, a former medical student, about delirium tremens, as if she would not know, he likens her sex-games to angling – is this to avoid relating to what he is actually being told, as we would think, if someone did it to us, saying that it was just like x ?
Try as he might to be a sympathetic listener, always trying to find some ground for Joe to think better of herself than she does (or for him not to think badly of her), there is a clinicality that hangs over this film, which not even the gaspingly absurd nature of some of the recollected interchanges can dispel. One minute, never really having had proper duties working for Jerôme, Joe has lost it, the next we hear of work is that she somehow has a full-time job. An entertaining extended scene with Uma Thurman (Mrs H.), from which there is no going on, gives way to the one in the hospital, seemingly as much as a displacement as anything.
The way in which, at some level, Seligman is drawn in hints that whether, complete with diagrams, this is a shaggy-dog story or a fish on the hook he may regret taking care of this bruised stranger (it all looks pretty superficial, and there is no suggestion that she is caught by pain in all of this time - not at all consistent with what we will come to be shown has happened to her). Volume II alone will tell…
Is Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac Vol. I (2013) touched by Sartre (Huis Clos, perhaps) ?
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) March 1, 2014
* Then again, he shows a Greek temple with its façade enclosed in a rectangle, but there is no explanation that the ratio between height and width is that, as the series develops, between successive terms, known as The Golden Section, which was considered most visually pleasing.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)