Least Likely to Arouse: "Nymph()maniac" pushes boundaries but it's overly aloof

Nymph()maniac: Volume I (2014)
118 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).

By now, you might be wondering, "What is Lars von Trier depressed or angry about now?" There is no way of anyone misunderstanding what "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" is about. At once, it is about nothing and everything, from fly-fishing to nature to philosophy to math to music and cake forks. Since climaxing 2009's despairing, unrelentingly in-your-face "Antichrist" with ugly torture and genitalia mutilation and then ending the depressing world in 2011's devastatingly gorgeous "Melancholia," Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is back to his trangressive and highfalutin tricks, only some of which pay off in the pre-meal of his two-part art-house sex epic. (Originally conceived as four-plus hours, the film is being released in two volumes in the U.S., and the astutely titled "Nymphomaniac: Volume II" will follow this month). Take him or leave him, he is one of those lunatic, artistic-with-a-capital-A filmmakers who can shock, provoke, and stir controversial outrage, and with "Nymphomaniac: Volume I," the enfant terrible definitely makes the movie he wants to make with absolute chutzpah, compromise and censorship be damned. If he wanted to write and direct the most misanthropic and least titillating film about sex, von Trier has succeeded with flying colors, full stop. Purposely more turn-off than turn-on, the film is difficult to deny, as it will surely get people talking, but equally difficult to endure. 

Assaultively cued to Rammstein's industrial metal "Führe Mich" after the quietly entrancing sounds of melted ice dripping, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" begins when an intellectual Good Samaritan named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) bloodied and beaten in a wet alleyway. She refuses him to call an ambulance, so he invites her back to his flat for tea. A self-loathing, self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, she confesses, "I'm just a bad human being," and warns the man that the story she's about to tell will be "long and moral." Spurred on by a fly-fishing nymph on Seligman's wall, Joe recounts her reckless sexual experiences from her youth, which are separated into five chapters. She first discovered sexual sensation as a young nymph, where she and her best friend B would rub their naked pelvises against the wet bathroom floors. Then, at 15 (played alternately with a schoolgirl cheekiness, reckless bravery, and deliberate blankness by newcomer Stacy Martin), Joe lost her virginity to strong-handed mechanic Jerôme (a capable Shia LaBeouf with a British accent). After that, she and B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) committed to rebel against love by going on a train ride and competing for a bag of chocolate sweets by using their bodies (and mouths) as weapons on the male passengers. Seeking a job as a secretary at a printing office, Joe runs into Jerôme, who has temporarily relieved his boss uncle, and she's afraid she will fall in love. "Love was just lust with jealousy added," states Joe to Seligman, and her lustful appetite would lead to a path of tricky scheduling, loneliness, and emptiness. 

Clinical and maddeningly aloof, "Nymphomaniac" wants to be something of a character study with traces of dark, absurdist humor around the edges. Addiction can be inescapable and hard to define, and while von Trier treats Joe's nymphomania as such and defines her by her disease, his film is a self-important tease that penetrates profound emotion as deeply as his emotionless female protagonist. Joe's episodic sexual journey may have been more absorbing had it been told comprehensively and by itself, as the framing device with Seligman plays like a drab, talky two-character play and starts to get in the way. As Joe relays her story to the pedantic Seligman, it seems she's hoping to shock him or just have a good listener, but he sees it as an analogous (and humorous) yarn and just keeps equating her nymphomania to fly-fishing and the Fibonacci number sequence. Joe is still ashamed and takes full responsibility for her actions, until she eventually lost all control. Once again, Charlotte Gainsbourg (the director's muse since "Antichrist") dives into the raw corners of the human condition. As Joe, she plays another damaged shell of a human being who feels nothing anymore and holds herself in contempt. Gainsbourg is always a fearless, interesting actress, but we're kept at arm's length from her one-note, emotionally numb martyr of a character who slut-shames herself and prattles on and on. And on.

Few mainstream movies have the guts to explore sexuality (not since Steve McQueen's "Shame"), and without question, "Nymphomaniac" has guts to say something about the female gaze. Carnally explicit as you might expect, the film features copious soft-core coitus, reportedly with the actors' heads digitally grafted onto the bodies of porn-star doubles. If that is truly the case, the trickery is seamless, but then there's also oral sex with realistic prosthetics, bodily fluids, penetration close-ups, and even a slideshow of flaccid penises. None of it is really sexy, nor is it meant to be, but it's all on display and, eventually, to what end? Von Trier still can't seem to resist self-indulgence, distancing us when he should be drawing us closer. Rather than challenging his audiences with ideas about his or her own sexuality, von Trier merely challenges them to sit through it. Though he's not out to titillate, we're asked to experience others' miseries. There are brow-raising images that will burn into your retinas and stick in your brain, even if you don't want them there. A mid-film segment is uncomfortably farcical and more entertaining than the rest in which Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), the scorned wife of one of Joe's suitors, faces her husband's infidelity in the most unconventional way by bringing her three boys to Joe's flat and giving Mr. H the biggest guilt trip. It is certainly worthwhile to see Thurman remain cool and passive-aggressive ("Would it be all right if I showed the children the whoring bed?"), while trying to keep her bigger emotions together in a ferociously histrionic performance akin to Mount Vesuvius. Finally, in "Chapter Four: Delirium," there's a melancholy, gorgeously black-and-white section that isn't sexual at all, in which teenaged Joe spends time with her loving, dying father (Christian Slater) by his hospital bed without any support from her "cold bitch" mother (Connie Nielsen), until, of course, Joe's female fluid trickles down her inner thigh.

Judging "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" on its own, it is only half a movie and feels that way, while ending on an epiphanic moment for young Joe. Staggering but unmoving, daring but off-putting, this 118-minute half-movie works in individual scenes, but it's all so lugubriously apatheticeven shockingly tediousafter the shock value has worked its desensitizing effect. It might have a dollop of unprecedented playfulness (i.e. censored supermarket doors are compared to Joe opening her legs) to go with its artsy pretensions, but this isn't drama; it's masturbatory windbaggery that might inspire some curiosity like when you're too young to buy a Penthouse magazine. For that matter, Lars is fifty-seven going on sixteen.