At the start of Nymphomaniac Vol. 1, a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) stumbles upon a bloodied, unconscious woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alley and takes her to his apartment to nurse her back to health. When she awakens, she tells him her name is Joe, and she starts recounting her odd tale.
As a teenage girl (played by Stacy Martin), Joe and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) played a game in which they would see how many men they could have sex with during a train ride. Joe and her other girlfriends formed a club in which they pray to the power of “mea maxima vulva” while masturbating together. The young Joe believes she is rebelling against a love-fixated society — she thinks of love as lust with jealousy added to the mix — and she has no interest in anything romantic or long-term. She’s fulfilled by faceless, nameless carnal encounters. At her height, she was having sex sleeping with 10 different men every day.
Cutting back and forth between Joe’s youthful antics (which are often shown in detail) and her grown-up self revisiting her history, writer-director Lars von Trier gets us wondering whether if something happened to Joe in the interim that changed her outlook on relationships. The attentive Seligman, who at one point admits he’s having trouble believing the woman’s outrageous story, compares Joe’s seduction of men to fly-fishing, pointing out that the lure used in the sport is often called a “nymph.” Von Trier has never been one for subtlety or timidity, and there are lines in Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 that are as banal (“sex means nothing without love”) as they are outrageous (“if you took all the foreskin cut out throughout history, it would reach to Mars and back again”).
But what exactly is von Trier up to this time? Despite its theme, Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 seems less sexually graphic than Antichrist. The movie (thus far) bears none of von Trier’s typical traces of nihilism or misanthropy, and every time you expect things to become dire for the young Joe, the way fate usually goes for von Trier’s protagonists, the picture surprises you. Her relationship with her father (Christian Slater) is loving and kind and even moving; her infatuation with her boss (Shia LaBeouf) doesn’t lead to abuse or depravity depravation of any sort. Even Seligman, whose motives you initially question, turns out to be nothing but a good Samaritan.
Because it’s the work of von Trier, Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 does have scenes that make you squirm. Uma Thurman kills as the furious wife of one of Joe’s lovers, who shows up at her apartment with her three kids in tow and asks if she can show them Joe’s “whoring bed.” Thurman, initially unrecognizable without makeup, radiates rage and betrayal and disappointment; she’s tremendous.
The movie is divided into chapters, one of them titled “Delirium” and shown in black-and-white, in which von Trier makes the connection between sex and death physical. And there is a collection of portraits of genitals, set to Bach, that serve no purpose other than to amuse. Von Trier stuffs his movie with random references, from Edgar Allan Poe to the Fibonacci Sequence, and he often plasters the screen with text and graphics. But to what end?
Originally conceived as one mammoth 4½ hour movie, the film has been split into two parts (Vol. II arrives in April) and the version being screening in the United States is 30 minutes shorter than von Trier’s first cut. But the pacing is just right. Nothing feels missing, except for an ending, or quite frankly, a reason to be. Think of Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 as the first half of a longer tale which, if von Trier has taught us anything, will grow infinitely darker and more harrowing. For now, just surrender to Joe’s wild adventures as a young woman — and ponder the consequences they will have on her adult life, to be revealed soon.
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen.
Writer-director: Lars von Trier.
Producer: Louise Vesth.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 118 minutes. Vulgar language, considerable nudity, graphic sex, strong adult themes. Not suitable for viewers under 17. In Miami-Dade: Cosford Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood.