I feel I should start this review with full disclosure. I do not like the movies of Lars von Trier, I do not like them, Sam I Am. I find them preposterous, ridiculous, over the top, impossible to connect with emotionally, and, most importantly, just plain boring the vast majority of the time. I only keep seeing them because of the critical reception his movies receive and the reputation he has within the film community; so I realize that attention must be paid.
But I’m sorry, he just doesn’t work for me.
And so now we have Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1, the next in his series of movies in which woman are degraded and abused and psychologically traumatized, yet, because of that, are supposed to be the vessels wherein spiritual insight and universal truths reside.
And I found it fascinating. Absolutely fascinating.
I know, I know. What can I say, but there you have it. Just when I thought I was out, von Trier pulled me back in.
The basic story begins as Seligman (gravel throated Stellan Skarsgard, a character who at one time goes out of his way to mention that his name and background are Jewish, but definitely not Zionist, and I don’t know why I’m making a big deal out of this except that I can’t help recalling why von Trier was banished from Cannes that one year, though I’m quite sure Seligman’s name, etc., probably has nothing to do with any of that…perhaps…maybe…most likely…anyway)…
This guy Seligman, see, he finds the battered and bruised body of Joe (von Trier semi-regular Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alleyway. When she refuses to be taken to a hospital or have the police involved, he takes her home and makes her the universal cure all, tea, and she tells him of the events leading up to how she was found.
This story Joe tells is about her development as a nymphomaniac, someone who craves sex, whether she enjoys it or not. She begins her story from the beginning, starting with a game she played as a preteen with her BFF concerning flooding the bathroom floor with water (sorry, have to see it, I ain’t explaining it, though I did wonder what the little actresses’ mothers made of their daughters upon seeing the movie); moving on to a contest Joe played with her BFF, now a teen, as to who could have sex with the most men on a train in one trip; then to her attempts to juggle ten men a night while holding down a full time job (no longer with her BFF who betrayed Joe by falling in love and deciding to have sex with only one man).
Meanwhile, Seligman constantly tries to interpret her story by referencing such odd segues as fly fishing, Bach and harmony, and the Fibonacci number series, no matter how ludicrous or inappropriate or out of context they may seem to be.
In other words, it seems like your typical von Trier preposterousness. And, to be ruthlessly honest, I can’t say it’s not. In Nymphomaniac: Vol 1, von Trier is throwing so much at you, is confronting you with so many ideas, is reaching to what seem incredible lengths to make something out of Joe’s story, that at first it feels like he’s simply hurling spaghetti against the wall, just hoping that one of the damn ideas will stick.
In fact, oft times I wanted to scream out that it’s all hokum, from beginning to end. That I felt like I was watching the Great and Powerful Oz and any minute the curtain was going to be pulled back and reveal it’s just a nobody pulling the levers.
But in thinking about it, I began to suspect that there just might be more method to von Trier’s madness than may have seemed to be there at first.
Here we have Joe confessing to Seligman, who, dressed in black and with a constant visage of world weariness and existential despair, looks like a defrocked priest from an Ingmar Bergman film (if there is such a thing as a defrocked priest in a Bergman film, but if there isn’t, this is what one would have looked like).
And while Seligman keeps trying to attribute meaning to what Joe is telling him by constantly bringing in these ridiculous outside references, Joe keeps telling him, no, there is no meaning here, I am what I am and what I do is what I do, and there’s no more to it than that.
In making this statement, von Trier pulls every trick in the book. Split screen, cinematography spanning from black and white to full color to muted hues, non-linear structure, scenes in different literary styles from kitchen sink realism to an absolutely mind blowing and hysterical set piece in which a brilliant Uma Thurman as Mrs. H, the wife of a man who has left her for Joe (the last thing Joe wanted from this middle class git of a man), brings her three young boys to Jo’s apartment to show them the whoring bed (the whole episode comes across as a Somerset Maughm or Noel Coward play on crack and you begin by despising Joe for what she’s done, but then quickly find yourself feeling sorry for her as she’s confronted by this utterly nutty Medea).
But none of it really gives any great insight as to why Joe acts the way she does.
One sometimes gets the feeling that von Trier is just having a whale of a time putting it all together, laughing in glee as he watches us try to figure it all out.
So basically, if the whole thing is suppose to add up to something, it apparently does so by adding up to nothing (and you can’t get much more von Trier than that).
The actors, led by Skarsgard and Gainsbourg (who have a wonderful chemistry), are strong and seem deeply committed to the whole enterprise, no matter how absurd it must have seemed on occasion. Even actors like Shia LeBeouf (as Joe’s on again, off again sex partner who took her virginity by fucking her three times in the front and five times in the rear—again, you had to be there) and Christian Slater (as young Joe’s father) feel fresh and natural in spite of (or more probably because of) their use of British accents.
At the same time, it must be said that most of them are hampered here and there by dialog that occasionally feels a bit stilted and flat (the screenplay is in English and one sometimes gets the feeling that von Trier is having trouble finding a natural cadence to it all).
With Stacy Martin, in her film debut, as young Joe. She looks like a young Charlotte Gainsbourg, that’s for sure. Her acting is a bit more hit and miss, but she certainly does no great harm.
In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson also plays a female who does little with her life but go around picking up men. However, let’s say that the end result is a bit different than when Joe does it for Lars von Trier.
Under the Skin is the new tone poem cum (yeah, it’s a Freudian slip, so what are you gonna do about it) sci-fi thriller written by Walter Campbell (his screen debut) and directed by Jonathan Glazer (not his screen debut, this is his third film; he also gave us the wonderful Sexy Beast and the wonderful to look at, but ridiculously silly Birth).
The movie is rapturous to view. It’s all moodily moody with overcast skies, thick fog, terrifying forests, empty roads, hand held camera shots of crowded streets, and weird TARDIS like rooms in which Johansson walks on oil, but none of the poor horny saps she brings home with her can (sorry, again, you just gotta see it).
It’s what one might call a minimalist screenplay, to say the least (which everyone does). When Johansson is trying to pick up men, you can’t shut her up. But when it comes to dialog that might explain the plot, everyone involved is a bit more reticent.
This is not always to the film’s advantage. Glazer is certainly in love with his camera and his ability to frame images that are emotionally captivating. If he was speaking, we might say he is more than a bit fond of his own voice. And he has every right to be. The movie is stunning to look at. But he tends at times to sacrifice clarity of story in order to do it, jumping over plot points and leaving lose ends here and there.
This approach also tends to slow the pacing down a bit in the second half. Much of the time we’re ahead of the story telling, but Glazer just can’t stop himself from focusing on that panoramic visual of waves crashing the shore or Johansson walking in and out of an unsettling bit of thick fog.
But still, when all is said and done, the movie is more often than not mesmerizing. It draws you in and seduces you in the same way the poor saps are until you find yourself being sucked down into some sort of netherworld just as they were.
Johansson is wonderful. There’s always something just a little off in how she looks at things or says her lines. No matter how much she tries to appear normal and human, you can tell that she never quite understands what is going on or what anything she does or says means. She’s an actress playing someone who is playing someone. It’s a subtle and quite effective bit of legerdemain.
The unnerving background music is by Mica Levi and the worth his weight in gold cinematography is by Daniel Landin.