Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’: sex, fly-fishing and more ...
A three-star movie review of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” which has more than sex on its mind. But you’ll have to wait for “Volume II” — or even the 5.5-hour director’s cut — to get the whole story.
Seattle Times arts writer
‘Nymphomaniac: Volume I,’ with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman. Written and directed by Lars von Trier. 117 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (no one under 18 admitted; contains graphic sex). Harvard Exit.
Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” naturally concerns itself with sex. But it’s just as much about fly-fishing, Fibonacci numbers, unreliable narration, deathbed trauma and the proper use of cake forks.
In other words, it’s far too eccentric to be written off as pornography, even if it does include brief shots of penetrative sex (performed, the credits tell us, by body doubles). It’s also frustratingly incomplete: “Nymphomaniac: Volume II” is out in theaters on April 4, while a 5.5-hour director’s cut is due sometime in the future.
“Volume 1” halts in its tracks after a brisk 117 minutes, making it difficult to evaluate. But what’s there is quirky, outrageous, mortifying and, sometimes, hilarious — a disorienting blend of farce and psychodrama.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the self-described nymphomaniac of the title, is taken under wing by a sympathetic and strangely sexless bachelor (Stellan Skarsgård) after he finds her beaten up in an alley. She blames herself for her condition (“I’m just a bad human being”), but he’s having none of it.
So she tells him her tale. It starts with a band of teenage girls embracing calculated promiscuity as a way to “combat this love-fixated society.” But young Joe (Stacy Martin), in juggling so many partners, soon finds herself in situations she can’t handle. (Example: Uma Thurman, the betrayed wife of one of Joe’s lovers, turns up as perhaps the most magnificently skilled passive aggressor in film history.)
Gainsbourg’s deflating way of describing her past, Martin’s numb testing of sexual boundaries and Skarsgård’s endless forgiveness make for an odd combo.
In visual style, the film is just as offbeat, combining the diagrammatics of von Trier’s “Dogville” (numerals, charts and other graphics superimposed on the screen) with claustrophobic shots of destructive intimacy and belated self-reprimand.
Where von Trier will take it from here is anyone’s guess.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org