After wisely deciding to release both volumes of Lars von Trier’s sex epic ‘Nymphomaniac’ as a single cinema event, Transmission are releasing each volume separately on Blu-ray over the course of June. While some might be annoyed at having to buy each volume separately, we have been offered an exciting opportunity we’d be silly to ignore: the chance to appreciate each of the films on their own terms. Cumulatively, ‘Nymphomaniac’ is a cohesive and exhilarating experience, but each volume is also a distinct film in itself. This week sees the release of Volume One, which stands as one of the most accessible and entertaining films Lars has given us in a long time.
Volume One covers the first five chapters told by nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to reclusive academic Seligman (Stellen Skarsgård) after he finds her beaten and bloody in an alley near his apartment. She recounts her sexual experiences in an effort to convince him of her immorality. These early chapters cover her experiences as a young woman (Stacy Martin), her relationships and sexual encounters, and her complex relationship with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), a young man who keeps popping up in her life. This is the period of Joe’s sexual awakening and acceptance of herself as a powerful sexual being, and the suggestion of the consequences that will come with this power.
So much of Volume One is infused with a tremendous sense of play, from the cracking wit of the screenplay, the clever storytelling devices, von Trier’s eclectic directorial choices and a cast clearly having a ball whilst being asked to push themselves into brave new territory. Unlike the other films in his Depression Trilogy (‘Antichrist’ in 2009 and ‘Melancholia’ in 2010), von Trier injects the film with a surprising amount of humour. The film is, as expected, an explicit demonstration of sexual behaviour, but it always does so with its tongue in its cheek. The storytelling is incredibly fascinating, the film often stopping for ten or fifteen minutes to allow Joe and Seligman to wax lyrical on philosophical concepts connecting sex with art, music and even fishing. The performances are mostly excellent, with Gainsbourg and Skarsgård real delights, and Martin taking most of the weight of the film on her shoulders. Her performance is a real highlight of this volume, laying beautiful track work for Gainsbourg to take over in Volume Two. LaBeouf is serviceable, even with his spotty accent and dangerously indulgent moments. However, the scene-stealer is Uma Thurman as Mrs H. Her particular chapter presents her as the wife of one of the many men Joe is sleeping with, and her operatic breakdown is the absolute highlight of a film already abundant with them. It’s worth seeing just for her moment.
The film is, as expected, an explicit demonstration of sexual behaviour, but it always does so with its tongue in its cheek.
In many ways, Volume One is the more deceptive instalment of ‘Nymphomaniac’. It is so entertaining that you look forward to more of the same with Volume Two, which takes a slow yet potent turn towards darker and morally ambiguous territory. The final moments of this volume give you a hint of where we have left to go, and perhaps Transmission’s decision to separate volumes with give audiences some time to prepare for the gear shift in the second. On its own terms though, Volume One is an absolute delight and one of the most unusual and enjoyable films we’ve seen from this great director in a long time.
PICTURE & SOUND
Transmission’s 1080p transfer is as wonderfully eclectic as the filmmaking itself. The base aspect ratio of the film is 2.35:1, but von Trier constantly changes ratio and film stock as he goes, depending on which chapter we’re in. He also engages a witty use of stock footage to complement Joe’s storytelling, also of varying qualities. As such, the transfer isn’t consistent, but it’s still gorgeous in its inconsistencies as it reflect the intentions of the filmmaker. At it’s best, it perfectly recreates the sepia tones of Joe’s young adulthood with rich colour and sharp image. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is also excellent, and beautifully captures the complexities of the sound design. Dialogue is consistently clear and balanced well with the music and sound effects. Altogether an excellent presentation.
SPECIAL FEATURES Unfortunately there are no special features offered with the film. Overseas editions have included a few features, but mostly press interviews of no consequence and as such, not particularly missed. It’s possible that more material will be available at a future date, especially as Transmission has indicated that they hope to release von Trier’s full five-hour director's cut when it becomes available. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll have a healthy collection of material with that release.