Lars von Trier’s latest provocation is a picaresque sex picture called Nymphomaniac: Volume I, and it’s both dumber and more entertaining than anyone had a right to expect. (The movie is now available on VOD, and in theaters March 21.) In the prologue, bachelor and seeming Good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) stumbles on a filthy, bruised Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), supine in an alley, takes her in, feeds her, and listens to a tale: her life as a girl (played by “newcomer” Stacy Martin in multiple stages of undress) who has had sex with as many men as possible and, through it, discovered “her power as a woman.” Having used that power “with no regard for others,” she feels ambivalent, exhausted, dead inside — but resigned. (“I’m ashamed of what I became, but there’s nothing I can do now.”) Volume II arrives in a few weeks, and we’ll see if Joe’s fatalism will be tested under the scrutiny of her interlocutor.
The film’s frame is anything but extraneous: It’s where all the hefty philosophizing happens. Von Trier intends to be dazzlingly ironic and perhaps to send up his own pretensions, but the whole thing sounds like badly translated Ibsen (“I’ve always demanded more from the sunset”), and I’m not sure how Skarsgård expelled his lines without breaking into howls. As flashbacks illustrate Joe’s story, Seligman responds with mounting excitement. He sees parallels in her predatory behavior with the rules of fly-fishing based on his treasured old book The Compleat Angler. (“You were reading the river!”) Joe talks about the sheer numbers of trysts, and Seligman quickly pegs those numbers as part of a Fibonacci sequence—which leads inevitably to a discussion of J. S. Bach and finally the “cantus firmus” at the core of the polyphonic composition that is Joe’s odyssey. The cantus firmus is, in this case, Shia LaBeouf.
Shia is Jerôme, who’s offered young Joe’s virginity and accepts it indifferently while fixing a bike. After this momentous nonevent, Joe cruises shamelessly. A friend makes a bet with her: Which of them can have sex with more strangers on a train? The prize is a bag of sweets—a poignant evocation of how these girls hover between child- and womanhood. Gainsbourg and Martin have matching long faces and lithe bodies, but it’s hard to read anything in the younger Joe’s expression beyond robotic determination to have penises inside her. In one sequence, we get a parade of them in close-up: big and small, uncut and cut, black and white. The encounters are fairly primitive. It’s as if we’ve traveled back in time to stilted early hard-core films and Swedish faux-education films like I Am Curious (Yellow)—except rendered here with a punkish sneer and blasts of the Teutonic industrial-hard-core group Rammstein.
Where behavior is concerned, von Trier is a noxious reductionist for whom humans have as much free will as fish. But in the sexual arena you have to admit he has a case, at least for males, who reduce themselves incessantly. One of the film’s best scenes is on that train, when Joe throws herself at a man who turns out to be saving his sperm for his ovulating wife. He begs and cries but in spite of it all lets her take him in her mouth. The question is how much this reductionism extends to women — and what in particular is eating Joe. Flashbacks with her mother (“She was what you call a cold bitch”) and father (Christian Slater) yield little besides the dad’s odes to nature, during which von Trier gets all Terrence Malick–y cosmic. It’s kind of a cute look for him.
The sequence everyone will talk about rips the fabric of the movie not because it breaks from von Trier’s view of humanity but because he has written such a juicy, bravura character that you almost forget what movie you’re watching. That character is the wife of one of Joe’s lovers and is played by Uma Thurman. She busts into Joe’s flat with her two little children in tow and goes from elaborate mock politeness (“Would it be all right if I showed the children the whoring bed?”) to coruscating condemnation. Thurman is gloriously exhibitionistic, her temper building, exploding, and resolving itself into frank despair. It’s as if Kill Bill had been reimagined along the lines of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
And there I must leave Nymphomaniac: Volume I as it leaves us, in coitus interruptus, withholding the ultimate judgment until the climax that is Volume II. Fellow art-house Johns will want to schedule their assignations ASAP.
*This article appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.