In my mind, Lars von Trier doesn’t make comedies. The only other von Trier films I’ve seen are the first two entries in the Depression Trilogy, Antichrist and Melancholia. I enjoyed them all in their own way, but aside from finding the talking fox in Antichrist laughably over the top and the little bit of levity Udo Kier brought to Melancholia, there’s really not a lot to find funny. But that’s to be expected, considering their subject matters (and the trilogy they represent). I went in expecting darkness and found that in spades.
So it’s bizarre, then, that the first part of Lars von Trier’s pornographic epic (and the beginning to the last film in the Depression Trilogy is kind of hilarious.
Nymphomaniac Vol. I
Director: Lars von Trier
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Nymphomaniac Volume I opens in a way that only an epic can: with a full minute of blackness. For that minute, the viewer sees nothing and can’t really tell what’s being heard. And then it switches; it goes quiet as the image of an alleyway in the rain appears. For the next three minutes, there are long shots of gutters and falling rain, and then a hand.
But the cherry on top, and the moment that I knew I was going to find this funny, was that this hand cued a Rammstein song. I hadn’t heard the song before, but I knew from the first note who had made it, and once Till Lindemann’s voice came on, I started laughing. As Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) happens upon Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), battered and bruised in that alleyway, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a mistake. But the dialogue that followed, and then continued throughout the two hour runtime, proved that Lars von Trier is either a comedic genius or completely demented.
(Realistically, it’s probably a bit of both.)
One thing that makes Nymphomaniac so funny is its obsession with fishing. Joe is a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac (but true story: she never actually calls herself a nymphomaniac in this cut; Seligman is the first one to use the phrase), and the film takes place in flashbacks as she tells the story of her young, nymphomaniac life. It goes from a young, young age up through her teenage years. Young Joe isn’t played by Gainsbourg, who is bedridden for the duration of Volume I, but by Stacy Martin, a first time actress who found herself one hell of a debut. But as Gainsbourg recounts her childhood exploits, Seligman finds himself drawn to fishing comparisons, not as a one-off thing . He hears penis, and thinks fishing rod. It’s truly bizarre.
As is the editing. When Seligman compares Young Joe’s exploits to checking out the river before sinking a line, her path is rewound and replayed, this time overlaid against a running body of water, in case the metaphor went over anybody’s heads. And weird things like that are found all throughout, to the point where I actually thought I was watching the wrong movie. Cuts to photographs and pictures are frequent, some of which are more relevant than others. Sometimes it just turns into a slideshow, because in a movie about a nymphomaniac, why not?
I’d be interested to see what von Trier’s approved cut looks like (Nymphomaniac marks the first time he did not have final approval over a release), and whether it has more or less of these weird little moments. The other films of his I’ve seen have a little bit of that “Why not?”quality, but to some extent, it’s really more of a “fuck it” attitude. Like someone didn’t really care about what they were doing, and went with the kitchen sink because of it.
And with that extremely clever use of that sexual verb, let’s talk about pornography: Nymphomaniac is not pornography. Not even close. Much was made of the decision to have pornographic doubles standing in, but in the wide release cut, there was only one actual penetration that I can recall, and it was short. The vast majority of the sex scenes look like the sex scenes in any movie. Even if there were doubles for everything, there wasn’t much reason for them. Nearly everything could have been simulated without much trouble, and the few things that are obviously real don’t really affect it one way or the other. I mean, the film is called “Nymphomaniac.” Going in expecting hardcore pornography, I was somewhat disappointed. Not because I wanted to watch Shia LeBeouf getting it on with Stacy Martin or anything, but because I wondered what hardcore art porn would look like. I still don’t know.
But, if you have a particular aversion to flaccid penises, then you’re going to have some trouble getting through Nymphomaniac. There may not be a lot of erections, but there are a heck of a lot of penises just sort of flopping around. Sometimes it’s just people existing while naked, and other times it’s in those weird photo inserts, but there are just a lot of penises. It’s not upsetting or anything, but it definitely feels unnecessary. By the end, throwing another penis onto the mountain of penises doesn’t really seem to make the penis mountain any bigger. But it does make it somewhat harder to climb.
And with that weird thought out of the way, let me say that I quite liked the first part of Nymphomaniac. I was legitimately surprised by how much. I expected to be interested by what von Trier had done, and I definitely didn’t expect to be entertained. But Volume I is a legitimately funny (and fun-ish) film… even if it doesn’t always feel like it’s supposed to be.