For anyone expecting a porno, keep it in your pants. Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac functions more like a Sex Ed. instructional video. The story, recounted through a dispassionate conversation between a mysteriously battered woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the man, Seligman (Stellan Skaarsgard), who nurses her back to health, is broken into chapters. Volume 1 focuses on the sexual odyssey of younger Joe (played by newcomer Stacy Martin). Rather than recounting her sexploits with awe and reverence, Joe looks back on it matter-of-factly, punctuated by Seligman's excitement to compare her stories to fly fishing, theories about musical dissonance, and mathematics' Fibonacci numbers. Even the story about losing her virginity is calculated and removed, something Joe sought out just to have it over with. The number of pumps made by her deflowerer of choice, Jerome (a scruffy man-boy in town), are tabulated. If that doesn't kill your vibe, there’s always the Powerpoint-type parade of flaccid penises.
Emotional penetration is seemingly impossible in the first volume. When Joe, caught up in a bet with her friend about who can fuck the most men during a train ride, gives head to a married man who begs her not to put him in this situation, she's unapologetic. He isn't a person to her. She's fixed on sex like an Olympic runner gunning for gold.
Which is why the whole seven minutes devoted to Mrs. H (both Uma Thurman's character name and the title of the chapter) is so unforgettable. It's the first time one of Joe's sexual conquests are given his own tangible backstory. When one of the eight men she's scheduled to sleep with becomes too clingy, Joe attempts to guilt-trip him into leaving her, saying he'd never leave his wife. Unfortunately, he accepts the challenge and shows up moments later at her apartment a free man. Technically. His wife drops him off and invites herself and her three children upstairs. Thurman absolutely commands the scene. Her line delivery moves like that of a woman possessed, one in a straight jacket with a constant tick her in head reminding her to keep calm. Her rage builds slowly, her speech is cool and collected despite its contents. "Would it be all right if I showed the children the whoring bed?”, delivered with the propriety of a Jane Austen character, becomes the first line of the film that has any real weight to it. It's the first line with feeling.
The juxtaposition between the scorned wife in love and the unaffected Joe acts like the thesis statement of the film: obsession comes in any form.
As this crazed woman thrashes about in Joe’s apartment, Joe’s face remains expressionless. She’s sitting at her dinner table with her back against the wall, letting this woman lash out about losing the only thing she’s held dear: her family. In fact, Joe’s next appointment sits silently beside her, a witness to the scene. Joe simply lets it play out, biding her time until the storm passes and she can engage in the only thing she cares about: satisfying her sexual impulses. Which, according to the nature of obsession, she’ll never be able to do.
Written by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)