The big news out of the Berlin Film Festival was that Shia LaBeouf, here to promote Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume 1, behaved like an ass on the red carpet at the movie’s premiere. He showed up in a proper tuxedo, but also with a paper bag over his head scrawled with the words, “I am not famous anymore.” Earlier in the afternoon, when a journalist asked a fairly innocuous question, LaBeouf borrowed a random dial-a-quote from wiggy football star Eric Cantona — “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea” – and then stalked out of the room.
Presumably, LaBeouf intends to make his mark with antics of this sort now that he’s gotten on the bad side of almost everyone after stealing material from graphic-novelist Daniel Clowes for his own short film. Maybe, too, he feels obligated to kick up a little dust here, since that perennial naughty imp Von Trier has declined to do any press. Whatever La Beouf’s motivation is, his behavior as a guest here – basically, rude and ungracious – is unfortunate for at least one reason: His performance in Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 isn’t half bad. In fact, it might be the first time he’s shown even a spark of personality at all.
And here, I have a confession to make: I saw a version of Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 in New York a week or so back. The version shown in Berlin is a director’s cut, about 20 minutes longer, and so I had to choose between (a) spending some two and a half hours of precious festival time looking at more Lars Von Trier-approved genitalia (and there was plenty the first time) or (b) availing myself of a hard-to-come-by ticket to hear John Zorn performing a live keyboard accompaniment to a restored version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Berlin Philharmonic. Reader, forgive me: I said no to Von Trier’s extra penises and yes to the out-there downtown jazz guy. As I wavered between duty and pleasure, a colleague put it this way: “You work for the Village Voice! You can’t get more Village-y than John Zorn.”
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The thorny reality – as opposed to the Zorny one — is that I was disappointed in the version of Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 that I saw in New York, and I’m not convinced that any amount of extra footage can make it better. Charlotte Gainsbourg is Joe, the movie’s narrator and its restless soul. As it opens, Joe lies beaten and bloodied in a medieval-looking alleyway. A passerby, Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman, finds her and brings her to his home, lending her a pair of cotton PJs and tucking her into bed. But Joe doesn’t want to rest. She wants to tell Seligman her life story and perhaps, in the process, shed some of the horrific guilt she carries with her. As she explains how she came to lie in a mangled heap on the street, she blurts out, “It’s my fault. I’m just a bad human being.” When Seligman replies, in his sonorous, gentle-giant voice, that he’s never met a bad human being, Joe shoots back, “You have now.”
Joe’s story begins with reasonably happy memories of her childhood, and of her doctor-father (played by Christian Slater, with a measure of warmth and depth that he hasn’t shown before). Joe becomes aware of her sexuality at a precociously early age, and offers her virginity to a local dumb-bunny gearhead, LaBeouf’s Jerôme, who’s indolently sexy, like a lazy panther. He takes a few minutes off from fiddling around with his motorbike to do Joe the honor of taking her from both the front and behind. Deed done.
From that point on, Joe can’t get enough – there isn’t enough “enough” in the world to satisfy her – and she uses her sexual power, she explains, “without any concern for others.” As a young teenager, at that point played by a resolutely angular young actress named Stacy Martin, she and her mischievous best friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), don jailbait clothes and board a train, going from car to car to see who can rack up the biggest number of sexual conquests. Von Trier doesn’t hold back. We see a penis here, a vulva there, although as he presents these odds and ends (in Volume 1, at least), they’re more a novelty than a shock. And much of Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 is quite funny, including an extended bit in which Uma Thurman plays a jilted wife who marches into battle against Joe, wearing her victimhood like Athena’s armor.
Von Trier, as always, wants to provoke and titillate. He also has a lot to say. But as graphic as Nymphomaniac: Volume I is, Von Trier still does far more telling than showing. The picture isn’t nearly as rich and complex as his previous two, the brutal, gorgeous nature-poetry epic Antichrist and the sadder, sweeter Melancholia. The ideas he puts into the mouth of his chief spokesperson, the narrator Joe, aren’t as profound as he seems to think they are. “Basically, we’re all waiting for permission to die,” she says late in the film. Of course we are: By that point, we understand that what we’ve just watched is an exploration of despair, isolation, and the sexual impulse as a tool of survival and self-annihilation. But the movie isn’t about anything more than the things it says it’s about. Sex is mysterious; Nymphomaniac isn’t.
On the other hand, the beautifully restored Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is all strange, shivery pleasure. Robert Wiene’s 1920 chiller about a mad scientist (Werner Krauss) who keeps a murderous sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) as a pet is all oblique angles and charcoal slashes – it’s hard to say if it’s more effective as a feat of storytelling or a piece of design. The organ score Zorn has composed for the film, a magnificent constellation of dots, dashes and long tones, sounds both modern and primeval at once. It’s as if Zorn were using a special Morse code, a pattern of aural Art Deco zigs and zags, to summon the wisdom of the ancients. When Cesare the somnambulist first opens his eyes – black-rimmed and unblinking, they’re the windows of a soulless soul – the ribbon of sound Zorn draws from the keyboard is like the low, villainous hum of a power line. It’s a sound that could keep you awake all night – and for just a moment, you feel the benumbed pain of a character who’s doomed to sleep his life away.
Follow Stephanie Zacharek on Twitter at @szacharek