Foreplay, by Scott Nye
By now, we’ve grown used to the process of splitting films up into several parts. Kill Bill in some ways felt like a precursor to this, but things really exploded after the final installment of the Harry Potter series. Since since, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn has become a two-part film, The Hobbit has become a three-part film, and the upcoming Hunger Games finale will, indeed, take two whole damn movies to wrap it all up. This is in addition to the previous trend, utilized by the Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, of shooting two films back-to-back, creating a natural cliffhanger structure whereby one is inextricable from the other. There are antecedents for this nearly as long as there have been movies, especially in the days of of silent serials, where one had to go to the cinema to deliver what television only now so naturally offers.
Yet the question remains – can one sufficiently review what is essentially half a film? Rather than explicitly try, I will begin with a recommendation, which is that Nymphomaniac is the latest film from Lars von Trier, and if you don’t mind some sexually explicit content, then that alone warrants the film consideration, even if, like me, you have a rather uneasy relationship with the aggressively uneasy auteur. Next, some reflections on this, its first volume, released as a standalone film. Volume II, which I’ve not yet seen, comes out in a few weeks.
The film is pitched as a story of one woman’s life as a sexual being, but the particular way von Trier gets at this is edifying. Volume I opens with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), unconscious and apparently beaten in an alleyway. There she is discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who brings her back to his apartment to rest, heal, and eat. She volunteers her life story after insisting that she is a bad person, despite Seligman’s belief that such a person does not exist, and she believes her sexual history speaks entirely for itself in this regard. Seligman isn’t quite so easily convinced, and the most compelling parts of the film, at least for this viewer, entail the rather perceptive and curious exchange between the two of them, suggesting differing ways of approaching inherited morality.
Newcomer Stacy Martin handles nearly all of the flashbacks, playing the younger version of Joe, though it is Gainsbourg who provides the real soul of the character. Though Martin is quite adept at the awkwardness and occasional satisfaction with which she approaches her innumerable sexual conquests, it is only through Gainsbourg’s voice that we find, not just her inner thoughts, but the depth of feeling that motivates some rather outlandish choices. It’s rare that a filmmaker finds such a beautiful duality in the framing structure, a device usually too rooted in one time period or the other, but which von Trier uses as a way of breaking down the invisible walls of time. Joe is not a different person in her present state than she was in her teen years and early twenties; she just has a different understanding of herself, one that is perhaps more insightful, but which is also significantly more defeated. Is the former so valuable?
Volume I ends with the kind of suggestion that many multi-part films do, a cliffhanger of sorts that reverses the assumed trajectory towards a potentially more volatile path, but which comes so abruptly and at such an inopportune moment that, well, what am I going to do, not go see the second part? For the myriad levels of emotional, philosophical, and artistic depth that von Trier explores, the man has the head of a showman, and there is a certain way in which this rather cheap ploy is very much in keeping with his artistic urgency. One need only accept that cheapness need not be excluded from quality.