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Shia LaBeouf Bares All In 'Nymphomaniac: Vol. I'

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Stacy Martin in 'Nymphomaniac: Volume I', a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Christian Geisnaes
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"You might tell a point with all this," Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) says to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) late in Nymphomaniac: Volume I, the latest from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier. After finding her beaten and bloody in an alleyway and providing her with shelter, Seligman becomes Joe's captive audience as she tells lucid and lengthy tales of her highly active sexual past. It's all, ostensibly, with the goal of getting to the point of explaining how Joe ends up in that alleyway. And while the excerpted line of dialogue above comes from Seligman questioning the veracity of one of Joe's stories, it resonated with me as I grew impatient with how rambling and, ultimately, how shallow this whole affair had become.

The third installment of his "depression" trilogy, von Trier's latest work is so sprawling that it has been split into two parts for easier consumption and probably to double ticket sales. The previous two installments, Antichrist and Melancholia (both also starring Charlotte Gainsbourg), both portray the director's battle with depression in such provocative and majestic ways that the mundane and numbing depiction of Joe's insatiable appetite for sex in Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is a letdown. It is by design that Joe's impulses become a recurring, downward spiral of self-destruction that become more day-to-day mundanity, but von Trier's narrative becomes so unbearably dull that it makes seem all the more impressive that his depiction of crippling depression in Melancholia was so engaging and downright beautiful. Von Trier weaves in analogues to fly fishing, eating pastries with a cake fork, and Bach's polyphonies, but don't be fooled by these subjects; it's all intellectually hollow.

Despite the weakness of the material, von Trier is able to extract great performances out of the cast, especially newcomer Stacy Martin, whose portrayal of the younger Joe is the best alienating debut performance from an actress being used as a sex object since Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Uma Thurman turns in a surprising one-scene role as a woman also falling down her own downward spiral of self-destruction, scorned by one of Joe's lovers. Shia LaBeouf, perfectly typecast as a vain dolt, is Jerôme, the man who deflowers Joe and the only person aside from her father (an also bizarrely-cast Christian Slater) that Joe is ever able to harbor and feelings of affection for. While it'd be a stretch to heap praise upon LaBeouf and his British (?) accent that floats in and out of his dialogue at will, it's a daring act of stunt casting so jarring that it's fascinating in and of itself. And if you are curious, you do see plenty of LaBeouf (and others in the cast) in Nymphomaniac, but it's through the magic of technology.

Still, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is just half of a movie and it'd be unfair to judge the work as a whole until Volume II. Joe's mysterious predicament that opens the film is the hook for bombarding the audience with her life story so perhaps the conclusion makes it all worth it. But for now, this viewer has been left unimpressed and unmoved. "[Life is] monotonous and pointless. Basically, we're all waiting for permission to die," Joe says at one point. That was pretty much my experience of watching Nymphomaniac: Volume I, waiting for the rogue planet of Melancholia to come by and just wipe everything out to spare us all of the misery.

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Nymphomaniac: Volume I is currently available On Demand and will be released in theaters this Friday, March 21st, nationwide (the Nuart in Los Angeles). Volume II will be available On Demand this Thursday, March 20th, and will be released in theaters on nationwide on April 4th.