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Just How Dirty Is Nymphomaniac: Volume I?

There was a lot more buzz surrounding Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I (now out on VOD; in theaters March 21) than you’d normally see from an indie foreign film co-starring Stellan Skarsgård, but that’s what happens when advance press includes phrases like “unsimulated sex scenes” and “digitally imposed body doubles” — and the title is Nymphomaniac. Then the first trailer came out, with its vagina and oral sex close-ups, as well as Shia LaBeouf, and it quickly became one of the most anticipated movies of the winter. Just like the old canard of the person who says he reads Playboy for the articles, people are asking aloud, “But is it art?” (to which the reviews say yes: Volume I is at 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes; David Edelstein wrote that it was “both dumber and more entertaining than anyone had a right to expect”). But what a lot of people really want to know first is who does what to what part of whom. So, to answer your unspoken question, How dirty is Nymphomaniac: Volume I?

The short answer is “Not incredibly.” But there is a longer answer. 

Let me be clear, Nymphomaniac Volume I is dirty. It’s not The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s definitely not Mr. Peabody & Sherman. There’s a lot of sex in it — the main character, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is a sex addict — but, at least by today’s cable and movie standards, for the most part it doesn’t reach an unbelievable level. By my count, there were six instances that felt like something you wouldn’t see in a hard-R: 

1. In a flashback scene, young, teenage Joe (played by Stacy Martin) is playing a game with her friend of who can have sex with more men on a train. At the end, she goes after an initially cold businessman, and, despite his resistance, performs oral sex on him. You don’t see it full-on, but it’s more than your usual coy movie trope of: woman vanishes below sheet, guy looks surprised, then smiles, closes eyes, leans back, and puts his hands behind his head.

2. When Young Joe is studying to become a doctor, she briefly observes a pap smear.

3. For a little less than two minutes, all you see are many close-up photographs of flaccid penises.

4. There’s a cunnilingus scene where you can see everything.

5. In a sex scene with Shia LaBeouf, for two seconds you see full insertion: It’s in the foreground, but out of focus. (If I were to guess, it was a “digitally imposed” situation.)

6. An ill Christian Slater, who plays Joe’s dad, shits himself. And you see nurses cleaning it off his butt.

I put the Slater one last because it was easily the movie’s most “holy shit” moment (pun intended — TGIF, guys). Beyond that, all of the other illicit content were just brief flourishes. It all reminded me of Game of Thrones: Most of Nymphomaniac’s sex scenes were exactly as graphic as the HBO show’s, and, regardless of how lurid they are, they are just a part of a bigger plot. What it’s not is porn. The sex scenes are all short, as they usually are in TV and movies. So, yeah, there’s sex, but there’s just as much time spent talking about plants, fly fishing, math, parallel parking, Bach, and whether it’s appropriate to use a cake fork when eating pastry.

You’re probably thinking that that sounds silly, because it is! The movie is silly as hell. Sure, it’s part addiction drama, but it’s also part sex comedy. It’s Lars von Trier’s American Pie, but not American, and there’s rugelach instead of pie. (No one fucks the rugelach, though it does play a big part in Nymphomaniac’s plot.) It helps that the movie is framed with present-day Joe telling her tale to Skarsgård, who responds without shaming her. Von Trier seems equally nonjudgmental, just as interested in the time management of a sex addict as he is with the sex she is actually having. Overall, the film’s light tone undercuts any dirtiness.

It passed the Screening Room Test. I saw this movie in a 40-seat room, made up mostly of strangers, but there were also a few friends and a couple of co-workers. I didn’t feel awkward; the same couldn’t be said for when I saw the much discussed lesbian sex scene in Blue Is the Warmest Color, which was longer (ten or so minutes), more graphic, and played very seriously, without the relief of Nymphomaniac’s ironic and comedic detachment. Nymphomaniac: Volume I wouldn’t pass the Family Viewing Test, but what does anymore?

The film ends with a preview for Nymphomaniac: Volume II, which comes out on VOD on April 3 and in theaters on April 18. Frankly, it looks way more intense. (For what it’s worth, it sounds like the director’s cut of Volume I is also much more graphic.) You see a close-up of a vagina and blow job, allusions to a double-penetration scene, and a lot of things that fall under the BDSM umbrella. It contrasts the movie you just saw, which for all its sex, featured almost exclusively — for want of a better word — traditional, meat and potatoes intercourse. It’s possible that von Trier back-loaded the crazy stuff to symbolize Joe going further down the rabbit hole of her addiction. David Edelstein, in his review, decided to “[withhold] the ultimate judgment until the climax that is Volume II.” And so must I.

Just How Dirty Is Nymphomaniac: Volume I?