TIME movies

REVIEW: Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac Has Lots of Sex But Little Feeling

Nymphomaniac
Magnolia Pictures

In the first of a two-part erotic saga, the infamous Danish director provides a strangely cool catalogue of sexual obsession

An hour or so into Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac Vol. 1, Uma Thurman barges in as Mrs. H, a woman whose husband has left her to move in with the title character, Joe (played as a youth by Stacy Martin). She’s not there to reclaim her ex, only to lay a ton of passive-aggressive guilt on him and his new girlfriend. To that end she has brought her three young sons: “I thought it only right that their father be confronted by the little people whose lives he has destroyed.” As if requesting a cup of tea, Mrs. H asks Joe, “Would it be all right if I showed the children the whoring bed?”, telling the kids, “It’ll stand you in good stead later in therapy.” Finally, she says, “I think we’d better grab the chance to get away, before things become grotesque.”

Too late: things are already grotesque and, in writer Jack Skow’s piquant phrase, growing tesquer.

Thurman turns the six-minute scene into a comic aria of wounded fury, in which the other characters hardly even share the stage with her. They’re bystanders — the audience — and one almost expects them to applaud when she storms out with her kids in tow. Mr. H (Hugo Speer) has a few sentences of perfunctory protest, and Joe, the agent of Mrs. H’s grief, says and shows nothing. We know that Joe had chosen how to treat each of her many lovers by rolling a die: the number on the cube would determine whether her beau of the moment would be rejected or accepted. She has no emotional investment in H, or in most of the dozens, hundreds of men with whom she couples. Thurman is the one blast of the life force in this handsome, sometimes funny, oddly remote film.

When von Trier appeared at the 2011 Cannes press conference for Melancholia — and got banned from the festival for saying, “O.K., I’m a Nazi” — he briefly discussed his next project, which he said would be a four-hour porn film reuniting his Melancholia stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg; he said they would be performing “a lot of very, very unpleasant sex.” From the stricken looks on the actress’s faces, this was news to them. The Danish director had also told Nils Thorsen, his biographer, that the film would be called The Nymphomaniac. “But it’s no fun if they’re just humping away all the time. Then it’ll just be a porno flick.”

(READ: Mary Corliss’s report on the Lars von Trier Cannes scandal)

Dunst said no thanks, but Gainsbourg, a game gal — in von Trier’s 2009 Antichrist she played a woman who snips off her clitoris in surgical closeup — signed on to play the older Joe in this two-part, five-hour sextravaganza. The film is being released here (Vol. 1 this weekend, Vol. 2 on April 4) in a four-hour edit unapproved by the director. Why remove 20% of the content for what will surely be a limited, art-house audience? No idea, unless the producers hope to cash in on the release of the complete version — “Now uncut, in all its lurid splendor!” — down the line. I haven’t yet seen the second half, so this will be an interim report, like covering the first half of a March Madness game; but from the comments of critics who saw the whole thing at last month’s Berlin Film Festival, the sexual activity gets more intense and explicit in Vol. 2.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist)

The film is called Nymph()maniac, and the parentheses for the O, which could be a visual metaphor for labia, is not a mere styling decision, like the redundant numeral in David Fincher’s Se7en. I think von Trier means to assert the difference between the two Joes. The movie is essentially a confession of sexual obsession made by the elder Joe to a sympathetic celibate named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgärd), who has found her badly beaten in an alley. As played by Martin in Vol. 1, Joe is navigating the immature insect form — the nymph — of her eventual metamorphosis into the later, more desperate Joe of Vol. 2: the maniac. Seligman, a devoted fly fisherman, also mentions that he uses a nymph lure, which replicates young insects, to catch fish.

Sipping tea and milk in Seligman’s austere home, Joe relates her story from the beginning — at the age of two, when she says she first discovered her sexuality — with parallel memories of her “cold bitch” mother (Connie Nielsen) and her loving father (Christian Slater) who taught her to love nature. In her ostensibly chaste conversation with Seligman, she is the penitent or patient, he the priest or shrink. “I’m just a bad human being,” she tells him, recalling her years in a coven of precocious girls whose motto was “Mea vulva, mea maxima vulva” (a rude pun on Catholic confession phrase “mea maxima culpa” — “thorough my most grievous fault”). Seligman’s tendency is to tamp down her shame. “I don’t see sin anywhere,” he says. “That’s because I’m not religious.” His only Bible is Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler.

Accompanying her more adventurous friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark, who played the young Judi Dench in Philomena), Joe boards a train and vamps every male in the first-class coaches: “Would you show where the lavatory is? I have to blow my nose.” She finds something else to blow when she meets a man (Simon Böer) who will pay for her ticket but doesn’t want sex in return; he’s saving his sperm for his wife. She does him anyway, and feels retrospective remorse. “Already,” the elder Joe tells Seligman, “my actions exemplify that I’m a terrible human being,” He waves that away with another allusion to the nymph insect: “If we have wings, why not fly?”

(READ: Lisa Schwarzbaum on “my Lars von Trier problem”)

Joe and B believed their sexual activity was at heart political, even revolutionary: “We were committed to attack the love-fixated society,” Joe says. “For me love was just lust with jealousy added. … For every hundred crimes committed in the name of love, only one is committed in the name of sex.” (Maybe, but that one crime, rape, is a mortal offense.) Then B betrays the cause when she whispers to Joe, “The secret ingredient in sex is love.” Joe had earlier consented to the assault of a stranger named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) when he took her eight times in succession — three frontal, five backal — and “I never forgot those two humiliating numbers.”

The memory both sears and inflames Joe: Jerome becomes her dream or demon lover, her deepest orgasm and regret. As the elder Joe reflects, “Love appeals to the lowest instincts, wrapped up in lies. How do you say yes when you mean no and vice versa? I’m ashamed of what I became, but it was beyond my control.” Jerome keeps showing up throughout Vol. 1 to alleviate her rote shagging with the interchangeable beaux who are identified only by initials (A, B. C…) in the order of their appearance. Some are seen only in a rapid closeup montage of penises, which has all the erotic appeal of a med-school slide show.

(READ: The 1970s, when porno was chic)

So, about the naughty bits… In the shorter version of Vol. 1 we get a hint of the fellatio Joe performs on the train passenger and, toward the end, a shot of Joe and Jerome, with the role of LaBeouf’s erect member played by a porn-industry performer. Much more is promised or threatened in Vol. 2, in which Gainsbourg reportedly pleasures herself with two black men and a kitchen drawerful of spoons. But what we see of Joe’s encounters in the first part looks simulated and perfunctory. If this is a porn film, it’s the coolest, least enticing, most academic one ever. As Skarsgärd has said of the movie, “You can’t wank to it.”

Aside from prurient interest, Nymph()maniac Vol. 1 lacks any raw emotion that communicates to the viewer. Slater does well-judged work as Joe’s father (who, surprise!, doesn’t have sex with his daughter); Gainsbourg and Skarsgärd are, so far, strangers quickly warming to a friendly intimacy; and Thurman is her own glorious side show. (LaBeouf’s visible and auditory discomfort at playing a rogue lover with a goofy Brit accent offers its own species of rogue comedy. The paper bag he wore over his head at the Berlin press conference could have been a critique of his performance.)

(READ: Shia LaBeouf dons a paper bag for the Nymph()maniac premiere)

But Martin, in her first screen role, doesn’t yet possess the actress’s gift of revealing what’s going on inside her character. She performs sex or endures it with no clue to the mind or heart within. Gainsbourg’s voiceover monologue explains the young Joe’s motives, but Martin embodies the girl as if she were a slim, pretty embodiment of the walking dead. She fulfills the elder Joe’s observation: “Basically, we’re all waiting for permission to die.”

As if realizing that he had cast not Dunst but a zombie doll in the main role, von Trier jazzes up Vol. 1 with on-screen graphics: numbers (the 3 and the 5), jigsaw pieces (the various aspects of Jerome that Joe finds in other men) and diagrammed charts (parallel parking!). Seligman provides amusing diversions about Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Fibonacci’s number sequence and J.S. Bach “Cantus Firmus,” which he translates as the third ingredient in the polyphony of sex. And Joe offers such factoids as “If you collected all the foreskins cut off during history, it would stretch to Mars and back.” (Really? More than 100 million miles?)

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of von Trier’s Melancholia)

It’s as if von Trier shot the main scenes while in one of his famous depressive funks, then edited the film in a more cheerful, impish mood. At times, the tantalizing mixture of sexual neurosis and wayward humor in this memoir of a woman of pleasure suggests a collision between Fanny Hill and Annie Hall.

But we’re only halfway through the Calvary that von Trier has mapped out for Joe. Vol. 2 will explain the crucifixion that led to her pulverized state when Seligman first sees her, and perhaps give Joe an ultimate Res-erection. Things, we are assured, will grow tesquer. Come back in two weeks and we’ll have the answers.

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