TIME movies

Who’s the Maniac?

Charlotte Gainsbourg Nymphomaniac Lars Von Trier Still
Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Christian Geisnaes—Magnolia pictures

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a raw, remote sex film

At the same 2011 press conference that got him banned from the Cannes Film Festival for jesting, “O.K., I’m a Nazi,” Lars von Trier announced that his next film would contain “a lot of very, very unpleasant sex.” This is it. Released as a pair of two-hour films, each 30 min. shorter than the Danish director’s approved cut, Nymphomaniac takes the form of a confession made by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to the gentle, celibate Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who has found her beaten in an alley.

In Vol. 1, now in theaters and on video on demand (Vol. 2 arrives in a few weeks), the young Joe (newcomer Stacy Martin) has escapades with partners identified only by their initials and with the one man she loves (a sulky, uncomfortable Shia LaBeouf). The elder Joe is a wanton woman crippled with scruples: she calls herself “a terrible human being”–while Seligman asks, “If we have wings, why not fly?”

Von Trier peppers the proceedings with helpful diagrams (one on parallel parking!) and allusions to Poe, Fibonacci and Izaak Walton. Uma Thurman shows up as a scorned wife and adds a dose of comic vinegar to this otherwise raw but oddly remote enterprise. Vol. 2 will get darker, but what we have so far is the tantalizing, occasionally funny, deeply neurotic memoir of a woman of pleasure: sort of Fanny Hill with a little Annie Hall.

This appears in the March 31, 2014 issue of TIME.
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