When you’re watching a hardcore film about a sex addict, especially one by Lars von Trier—longtime provocateur, recent outrage-trolling persona non grata—you don’t expect to eventually think, “Shut up about fly fishing already!” Yet in Nymphomanic: Vol 1, when our antiheroine, Joe, is telling her life story to Seligman, an AARP-ish bachelor, he initially meets every sexual anecdote she glumly relates with an enthusiastic explanation of how it compares to angling.
It’s forced, and you’ll laugh. Whether von Trier wants you to find these exchanges intentionally absurd or just plain moronic will be fodder for viewers to debate as ferociously as the artistic merit of the talking fox in Antichrist, his misogynistic 2009 mess. (Well, that case may be more clear-cut.) Nymphomaniac, for which the auteur surrendered final cut because he found himself unable to trim the beast to a more box office–friendly length, is being released as two chapters a few weeks apart. Vol. 1 begins boldly, with a minute of blackness and virtual silence, with the camera then panning odd details outside a building on a rainy night. Startlingly, German metal band Rammstein’s pulsating theme rages, accompanying a static shot of a woman lying bloodied on the ground in an area so grimy it looks more like catacombs than a maze of alleyways.
That woman is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, lately von Trier’s muse), and she is found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who brings her to his apartment when she won’t let him call an ambulance. In bed with some tea, Joe declares herself a bad human being, leading Seligman to prod her to explain what she means in the most contrived, awkward framing since Life of Pi. “I discovered my cunt as a 2-year-old,” Joe starts, while the film flashes back to her formative years, with Stacy Martin playing her as a teen.
Fly fishing isn’t the only thing that excites Seligman—but though he listens intently and with sincere interest to Joe’s stories, it isn’t quite sex, either. When she talks about losing her virginity to a guy named Jerome (the awfully accented Shia LaBeouf, who auditioned via authentic sex tape) and says he thrusted three times missionary-style and five times anally, Seligman replies with the obvious: “Those are Fibonacci numbers!” (And in case we missed it, von Trier displays giant numerals onscreen.) He also speaks of the Pythagorean theorem, how Edgar Allen Poe died, the sexual symbolism of a dwarf hamster, the satanism of a “tritone,” and the polyphony in Bach’s compositions. Apparently, Joe was rescued by the scholar of all scholars. And when he serves her rugelach with an uncustomary cake fork, well, wouldn’t you know that Joe has had a fuck-related experience with a fork-and-rugelach eater, too.
Considering the amount of fornication involved, young Joe’s story just isn’t all that compelling. It’s further marred both by von Trier’s fondness for throwing distracting images over scenes (typically literal representations of what’s being discussed or going on, such as a step-by-step diagram superimposed over a car Joe is parallel parking) and ridiculous, pseudo-academic dialogue, which just tells us how hard he’s trying. There are fleeting messages of love versus lust, sin, and self-hatred. Also, you’ll see a parade of penises—along with a fun foreskin fact—and random shots of the universe. The latter recalls Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, only Nymphomaniac is its extreme: Malick’s film was self-indulgently confounding, while von Trier self-indulgently spells out everything to the point of tediousness. And the dick montage has nothing on the flapping wang in Bruno.
Throughout, Gainsbourg mopes while Skarsgård engages in the story a little too earnestly. LaBeouf, who won the role after Liam Hemsworth wisely turned it down, comes across like the ass he’s actually turned into. Martin and Uma Thurman, playing the wife of someone who left her for Joe, are the only actors not phoning it in, with Martin conveying an allure that makes her seem magnetically beautiful rather than merely pretty and Thurman projecting despair that’s first expressed with sarcasm, then with gut-sprung fury. If you cringed at Thurman’s line delivery in the trailer, pretend you never saw it and judge her within her scene’s context. There’s a reason for her affected, submissive request about the “whoring bed,” for example; isolating it makes it seem like she’s just a terrible actress. (Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen also have small roles as Joe’s parents.)
Finally, the action. Nymphomaniac is hardcore. The cast, however, did not actually perform sexual acts, which run the gamut. Body doubles were used instead to show private parts; this is essentially porn, no matter how high-minded von Trier tries to make it. As far as this chapter’s oddities and contrivances, perhaps they’ll make sense in the follow-up—which, regardless of what you think of this film, you’ll probably want to seek out, even if it’s just to see if it has the same love-to-hate-it potential. Vol. 1 does end with a certain lyricism, both visually and thoughtfully. But it doesn’t compensate for the ludicrousness of what precedes it, such as when Joe tells Seligman that she once brought herself to orgasm on a train. “You masturbated on the train. On the seat,” he says. She responds, “Yes, of course.” Of course, stupid.
This isn’t the first time von Trier has battered a film ostensibly concerning women and female sexuality with empty pretension and an unmistakable misogyny. Whether it’s the batshit mother and nausea-inducing camerawork in his fucked-up musical Dancer in the Dark or the rape and allegedly deliberate continuity errors intended to provoke disorientation in Dogville or Antichrist’s suggestion that women are worthless and evil, von Trier increasingly feels like the cinematic equivalent of a grade-school bully. Or, more precisely, the art-house Michael Bay.