The controversial new film "Nymphomaniac Vol. I" from Danish director Lars Von Trier opens Friday. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman filed the following report for NY1.
There's no denying that the Danish director Lars von Trier has become a world-class provocateur. The question is: Is he still a good filmmaker? When you watch "Nymphomaniac Vol. I," the first half of his two-part, four-hour-long drama about one woman's consuming erotic obsession, you're always aware that von Trier is busting taboos, yet you may feel that his exhibitionistic audacity is about all that's driving the movie forward. The actual drama is pretty weak. After films like "Melancholia" and "Antichrist," von Trier has redefined himself as a kind of sensationalist junkie who has to keep upping the ante on his own outrageousness. He's become the world's most highfalutin' exploitation filmmaker.
In "Nymphomaniac Vol. I," Charlotte Gainsbourg, the Anglo-French actress who looks like she was born to play Patti Smith, portrays a woman named Joe, who we meet when she's lying, unconscious, in an alleyway, her faced smeared with blood. A forlorn-looking man named Seligman, played by Stellan Skarsgard, rescues her and takes her to his monk-like concrete garret, where he asks her to tell her story. She unspools a tale of a destructive life ruled by sex, yet from the beginning, we have almost no sense of why.
Most of the movie is acted out not by Gainsbourg but by a young French model named Stacy Martin, who projects a trivial teenage narcissism that doesn't allow her to connect with anyone on screen. That's true even when Joe meets Jerome, a suitor played by Shia LaBeouf. Their relationship is literally naked, yet it also feels stripped bare of psychological interest.
The trouble with "Nymphomaniac Vol. I" is that von Trier treats sex more as a concept than as an experience. When Stacy Martin, as Joe, saunters through a moving train trying to seduce as many men as possible, we have no idea why she's doing it: simply as a dare? Because she truly feels that level of lust? The only real motivation is that Lars von Trier needed his heroine to act this way so that he could make a movie about it.
The second volume of "Nymphomaniac" opens in just two weeks, yet I have to say that "Nymphomaniac Vol. I" didn't leave me eager to see more of this oddly detached and unconvincing erotic tale. It just left me wishing that von Trier had made a movie that was more than a graphic yet listless advertisement for its own fearlessness.