Here's the basic gist of the story (keeping in mind that this is only part one of two): Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac found beaten in a back alley by a lonely Stellan Skarsgård. Gainsbourg refuses his attempts to get her to a doctor, but instead goes back to his tiny apartment for the longest tea time I have ever seen. (I lost track of how many cups the two go through but it seemed pretty outrageous.) There, she narcissistically launches into her sex-ploits, while a patient Skarsgård tries to understand her fearless masturbation techniques, "eight pump" deflowering, and friendly group-sex challenges by relating them to fly fishing. It kind of works. But, that's not the point. The focus here is current Joe's self-loathing story and past-Joe's (played by the wonderfully fresh-faced Stacy Martin) reckless lifestyle. This is where von Trier and his entire cast shines.
Despite the overt sexuality of Nymphomaniac's main character and the polarizing graphic nature of its visuals, it's not a "porn" flick. It does not look to excite, but to incite some sort of personal reflection on sex, sexuality, and, yes, porn. Joe's heightened sense of self-awareness is jarring. She knows exactly what she's doing when she's scheduling 10 back-to-back slam sessions. Even when she's with her father as he dies, she's aware of her coping methods and shamelessly screws around in the hospital. It's the post-coital moments — moments when the climax is over — that humanize the story.
I opted out of the latter option after Uma Thurman came in and stole the whole show in her maybe 10 minutes of air time. Her role as the other woman puts Joe's actions into perspective. It is likely one of the most uncomfortable, darkly humored scenes I've ever had to sit through. Jealousy has the ability to drive people mad, and Thurman's character is a testament to that. Does this stop Joe? Absolutely not, and that's the heart of this story.
Joe will stop at nothing to get her fix. She's has this knowing stare that I've struggled to put a word to, but it's one that's conscious of the impact her actions have. It's like she wants the audience to watch her test herself. And, frankly, I wanted to keep watching more after the Interview and Absolut Elyx-sponsored MoMA screening.
I'm a huge prude compared to Joe. When the film ended and I wiped the few tears that made their way out my ducts (yes, I cried) while recounting how many bodily liquids I had just witnessed with a packed audience, I realized I can be so much more adventurous. Joe is the symbol of the extreme, and because of this movie, I know what that extreme is. Did it make me want to flood my bathroom with water and slam my body against the cold, wet tile (that was a weird scene to watch)? No. Did it make me want to masturbate on the subway (again, another awkward scene to watch)? Nope. But, it did (and this could be because of how pretty the movie is) make a case for separating love from sex. Nymphomaniac's tackling of whether or not one can have good sex without love is intriguing and one that I've struggled with for a while. It doesn't provide the answer, but it's getting there. It also outlines how one arrives at that answer, which essentially means putting yourself out there — something I realized I don't do.
Like anything in life, you can't know and understand why something is the way it is without contrast. Joe isn't a nymphomaniac until she compares her sex life to the sex lives of others. I didn't know I was that much of a prude until I saw this movie. But, now that I've seen the furthest (well, furthest part one will show) extent of sexuality outside of super-fetish pornography, I feel inspired to let my proverbial hair down a little more — not too far, though, because Uma Thurman's performance still has me reeling.
Until part two...