Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin in "NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME I," a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo Credit: Christian Geisnaes.

Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin in “NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME I,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo Credit: Christian Geisnaes.

Sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due — if you’re the type of moviegoer whose eyes light up at peepshows advertising the two-headed woman, then the trumped-up title of Lars von Trier’s latest cinematic turn in two “volumes” may be just the ticket to get you inside the tent. But be prepared, this pornographic, sometimes brilliant, sometimes grotesque, and often downright sadistic film, may make you squirm in your seat — and if you’re of the female gender, even look over your shoulder for the nearest exit.

Of course, if you’re serious about film as an art form, you’re probably already familiar with the Danish filmmaker’s former controversial and award-winning entries, such as The Palme d’Or for Dancer in the Dark (2000), and the Grand Prix du Jury for Breaking the Waves (1996). Then there’s the recent Melancholia (2011), von Trier’s end of the world exercise employing a rogue planet on a collision course with earth, featuring occasionally breathtaking cinematic beauty and guaranteed to either put questionable chills up your spine, or worse, leave you with a lingering existential dread. You may even know he’s a bit of a provocateur — having declared himself, wrongly we trust, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival as a Nazi. An interesting side note from the International Movie Data Base (IMDB) asserts that the “von” in his name was adopted while he was studying at the Danish Film School. So, faced with a writer/director of considerable talent who knows how to titillate, you’ve decided to confront his nymphomaniac heroine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Meet Joe. When we first lay eyes on her, after a slow, suspenseful pan through a dark alley on an even darker rainy night — accompanied by a heavy register of unrelenting sound worthy of a gothic horror story — she’s a bloody mess. Actually, it’s Seligman, a 60-something, kindly-appearing man (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds the barely-conscious, battered woman and carries her to his nearby frugal apartment. Over a cup of tea while tucked into bed like a small child, she begins to relate the early beginnings of her life as a nymphomaniac.

This is one of those moments we’ll just have to accept as “the suspension of disbelief,” an old theatrical term to describe the need to give way to the drama unfolding before us. It is unlikely that a woman who would be described in critical condition by any self-respecting emergency ward musters the wherewithal to tell a perfect stranger her life story.

As played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (a favorite actress of von Trier’s, appearing in both Antichrist and Melancholia), we get a close-up, unprettified look at an older damaged soul, mainly through the monotone delivery of her story to Seligman, but at times in the flashback narration as well. With little prodding, she begins by confessing she discovered her cunt as a two-year-old. We might laugh at the absurdity of this and other bits of information she chooses to reveal if she didn’t appear so desolate and exhausted at the point of no return she has reached. “I’m just a bad human being,” she tells him a little later, and we believe her.

In this first half of her story as the narrator, Gainsbourg delivers a sullen, sobering performance, totally devoid of sentiment. She sees herself as reprehensible: “I was an addict out of lust, not out of need.” For this woman who has lost every remnant of innocence, being a sexual predator has nothing to do with dressing up or glamorizing her intent. There is, nevertheless, humor to be had in these exchanges with an asexual stranger and it is Seligmann’s character who gives rise to them. Von Trier has given him a hamstrung series of metaphors from nature and science to explain Joe’s destructive behavior, such as his observations on fly fishing and the Fibonacci number sequence, the latter which he employs to explain the two front/three rear method of her deflowering by her first partner Jerôme (played with a sometimes confused earnestness by Shia LaBeouf.) Even Sebastian Bach’s three-part polyphony comes into play as Joe responds with her own analogy of three men at one point in her search. Can three attempts add up to one orgasm?

It would seem in all this philosophizing that von Trier has fashioned Seligman as his alter ego, giving himself an opportunity to reflect in his dual role as director and writer on every aspect of the universe his mind alights upon. It is not the actors who bring a sense of artificiality to these scenes in certain moments but von Trier himself who takes the risk. Such freewheeling pontification hasn’t been seen on the international screen since Ingmar Bergman unleashed his early attempts to explain life’s angst through his own stable of human puppets.

Both directors have had the good sense to employ talented performers, such as Skarsgård and Gainsbourg in this instance — let’s not forget Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves — or in Bergman’s case, the considerable talents of Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann to transcend the role of a mouthpiece for the director’s intent. Admittedly, European filmgoers are as a rule more patient with the kind of introspection that brings any chance of a quickening of rhythm in the plot to a direct halt for the sake of reflection. There’s a middle ground here somewhere, but von Trier is pushing the envelope in some of these bedroom exchanges between Seligman and Joe.

In this first volume, Stacy Martin as the young Joe does a commendable job of seducing and serving a long line of willing male partners, picked up and put down like a pair of used undies. She manages to present in every encounter a believable blankness, as if in each sexual act her lithesome body was present but her head wasn’t really there at all. One memorable episode has Joe and a young girlfriend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) challenging each other on a commuter train ride — how many men can they service before the end of the route? One episode in particular jolts us awake. A married man (Clayton Nemrow), a bouquet of flowers in tow, anticipates an intimate reunion with his wife that same evening. He painfully attempts, without success, to rebuff Joe’s advances. It’s this scene, one of the few, that manages to put the pornographic hysteria of the entire sequence in perspective. It’s a real human moment that is not easy to forget.

Another unexpected confrontation happens when a distraught Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman), the wife of one of Joe’s conquests, shows up at her apartment with two young sons in tow. It’s a fabulously played set piece by Thurman, if more naturalistically delivered than the film itself, and leaves Joe temporarily at a loss of how to respond.

Interspersed with von Trier’s endless stream of couplings and Joe’s marathon storytelling in Seligman’s drab bedroom, we are treated to quasi-romantic walks in the woods that the young Joe takes with her father (sensitively portrayed by Christian Slater). It’s a refreshing but confusing break in our nymphomaniac’s tale. The father makes reference to the sounds of trees in winter and their naked souls. He is obviously a man on his own spiritual quest for answers — one can only wonder how he has managed to produce such a damaged, self-obsessed soul in his own daughter.

And let’s not forget Shia LaBeouf’s Jerôme, who is introduced briefly and comically in the film’s first coupling and returns in the trajectory of the story as Joe’s employer turned lover in a titled chapter of his own. I use the word “lover” guardedly, as Jerôme might define his relationship with Joe in such terms but it’s doubtful that she would define any of her entanglements with such dignity. In her world love only “distorts things.”

It would appear that the central issue that drives the film is abuse, which can take many forms. In this first volume, the abuse is self-inflicted. Ironically, the oddly-solicitous Seligman tells Joe that if she has wings, why doesn’t she fly? But freedom is a bankrupt word at best if it only leads to the kind of dehumanizing treatment Joe inflicts upon her own self. We are still left bereft, knowing little of this woman beyond her history as sexual odyssey.

A tacked-on trailer at film’s end acts as a teaser to Volume II (to be reviewed) and makes it clear that abuses of a very different and more violent sort await those who have the stomach to continue.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“Nymphomaniac I,” a Magnolia Pictures and Zentropa Entertainments release, opened in theatres March 21st and is available on VOD, including Amazon and iTunes.  The film has not yet been rated and is 117 minutes long. Volume II is slated to open April 4th. For more information, please visit

Video Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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