Film Review: Nymph()maniac, Vol. 1

Who needs <i>Fifty Shades of Grey</i> when you've got Lars von Trier's brand of melodramatic erotica?

Absurdity and audacity are the two forces that tend to drive the work of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier. Many of his movies are based around heightened premises that teeter on the edge of ridiculousness, whether it's the story of a blind factory worker put on trial for theft and murder or a pair of sisters who treat a wedding as a kind of farce. Not content to stop there, von Trier keeps raising the stakes through stylistic flourishes and grand narrative and thematic leaps; hence, the blind factory worker (who, in a bit of brilliant stunt casting, is played by a real-life pop star with no previous acting experience) imagines herself living in a lavish Hollywood musical, while the sisters have to put aside their differences in the face of the literal end of the world, brought about by a planet that's about to slam into Earth. In film after film, he's forever daring the audience to throw up their hands at the absurd goings-on, while also hooking them with the burning desire to see what audacious stunt he's going to pull next. He may be as much a carnival barker as he is a filmmaker, but he backs his teasing bravado up with unique funhouse spectacles that, once seen, aren't easily forgotten.

And von Trier has been teasing his latest film, Nymph()maniac, for some time, first through a series of high-profile casting moves (most notably nabbing reigning tabloid king Shia LaBeouf), followed by a campaign of viral teasers and posters that hinted at the movie's explicit sexual content, as well as the decision to release the four-hour opus in two parts. Each move was clearly calculated to grab attention, stoking moviegoers' imaginations (those on the art-house circuit, anyway) about what the holy hell the Bad Boy of European Cinema had come up with this time. As it turns out, what he's come up with is an old-fashioned slice of European erotica in the tradition of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Story of O, florid tales detailing the sexual awakening—and resulting sexual hunger—of women who opted out of conventional social mores in pursuit of personal pleasure.

In the case of Nymph()maniac, our bold, voracious heroine is Joe, played as an adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg and as an adolescent by Stacy Martin. The latter actress, in fact, is the primary star of the first five chapters that constitute Vol. 1, all of which concern Joe's coming-of-age, commencing with the loss of her virginity to a neighborhood tough (LaBeouf) and proceeding through erotically charged vignettes that include a competition with a female pal to determine which of them can seduce the highest number of passengers aboard a commuter train and an awkwardly hilarious encounter with the spurned wife (Uma Thurman) of one of her many, many lovers, who brings her three sons to tour the apartment where Daddy cheated on Mommy, instructing them to pay particular attention to the "whoring bed." (Look for that line to become a social-media meme among cineastes soon, if it hasn't already.)

In between chapters, von Trier returns to the small room where Gainsbourg's older Joe is spinning her tale to mild-mannered Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the man who scooped her beaten body up from the alleyway in the movie's prologue—a piece of unfinished business that will almost certainly be attended to in Vol. 2, which arrives in theatres in April. (And while the whole Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 gimmick may make for good ad copy—not to mention von Trier's sly send-up of the new blockbuster trend of releasing one movie in two installments a la the last installments in the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises—these initial two hours don't and aren't meant to function as their own entity.)

Von Trier's trademark absurdity is felt in the way that many of the scenarios Joe describes resemble fantasies submitted to Penthouse Forum more than anything that could possibly happen in the real world (Seligman even routinely comments on the rampant improbabilities present in her stories), as well as the lush, overwrought language—not unlike the asides in a D.H. Lawrence novel—the characters almost exclusively communicate in. The audacity of Nymph()maniac, meanwhile, lies in the way von Trier replaces the flowery descriptions of lovemaking present in vintage (and some present-day) erotica with prolonged and overt presentations of the act itself, up to and including penetrative sex, which leave little to the imagination. (Before industrious porn sites start advertising pirated copies of Nymph()maniac as a "Shia LaBeouf sex tape," though, a disclaimer included in the closing credits states that body doubles stepped in for the professional actors for the most…um, revealing moments.)

Still, while the movie is often as explicit as a pornographic film, it's not filmed in the same cold, clinical manner that's part of porn's house style. Abandoning the precisely framed, almost painterly compositions that distinguished Melancholia and Antichrist, von Trier pursues a casual intimacy through jagged close-ups and stolen moments that have their roots in his Dogme 95 days (although he breaks many, if not all, of that mode of cinema's commandments). It's only when you're out of the theatre, removed from the shock and awe von Trier is attempting to elicit from the crowd, that the peculiar beauty of Nymph()maniac hits home. Beneath the grandstanding, the film is a provocative, nuanced and even empathetic account of one woman's attempts to understand and perhaps eventually reconcile the mechanical and emotional factors that are bound up in sex. It's the work of a flamboyant salesman and a major artist.