Three stars out of four.
Lars von Trier is funny. Who knew?
That’s certainly the most startling revelation to come from “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” — much more so than any of the much-ballyhooed sex itself, which is pervasive and graphic and presented so plainly as to be clinical. Sure, von Trier has shown glimmers of humor in some of his previous films, mostly of the dark and twisted variety; you have to go all the way back to 1998’s “The Idiots,” or even some scattered moments of “Breaking the Waves” or “Dancer in the Dark.” But the Danish provocateur is not exactly known for being a laugh riot.
All of which makes “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” so unexpected and so refreshing, especially given its subject matter. The writer-director’s muse of late, Charlotte Gainsbourg — who also starred in “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” — plays the waifish, androgynously named Joe. When we first see her, she’s lying in an alley, dirtied and battered. Stellan Skarsgaard, another von Trier regular, plays a kindhearted bachelor named Seligman who discovers her in this wretched state. When she refuses to call the authorities or seek medical help, Seligman offers to take her to his spartan apartment nearby, where he makes her tea, wraps her in cozy blankets and listens to her story.
It’s a doozy. In extended flashbacks, Joe recounts for Seligman her lengthy and adventurous sexual history. Stacy Martin plays a younger version of Joe in these segments, and while she closely mirrors Gainsbourg’s long, lean brunette beauty, there’s a vacancy about her that makes her hard to pin down. Perhaps that’s reflective of a comparative lack of technical depth — or perhaps von Trier intended a blankness to her performance to indicate just how little emotional investment the character has in these sexual encounters. Either way, there’s an elusiveness to Martin’s presence which can be frustrating, despite her daring and her physical appeal.
As Joe matter-of-factly informs Seligman that she’s a terrible person — that she’s a nymphomaniac, and that her sexual addiction has hurt other people — Seligman listens without judgment. Quite the contrary, he’s fascinated by the life she’s lived and even tries to bolster her spirits. This framing device may seem facile at first, but it provides “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” with both perspective and a hugely enjoyable streak of absurd humor. Seligman listens intensely but he also has his own stream of consciousness going, relating Joe’s tales of anonymous degradation to everything from fly fishing to the Fibonacci sequence. Numbers and letters often appear on screen during these anecdotes, providing a visual vibrancy to counter-balance von Trier’s understated aesthetic. the cumulative effect is way more amusing and sympathetic than you might expect from this film — and this filmmaker.
The one rare source of emotional intensity is a brief appearance from Uma Thurman, who gives a hilariously theatrical performance as the passive-aggressive wife of one of Joe’s regulars. Joe reaches a point where she’s seeing 10 men in a night, scheduling them so meticulously that one man is leaving her spare apartment as another is about to knock on the door. Among the poor saps who make the mistake of falling in love with her is a married father of three (Hugo Speer). When he leaves his family for Joe, Thurman’s character — known only as Mrs. H — is right on his heels with the sad-faced boys in tow. “Would it be alright if I show the children the whoring bed?” she asks sweetly. It’s awkward and awesome all at once.
Seligman functions as a conduit for the audience but he’s also a stand-in for von Trier himself. The director doesn’t excoriate Joe for her deeds, but rather presents them in the stripped-down, detached way that is the signature aesthetic he forged two decades ago with his fellow Dogme 95 filmmakers. Joe’s unceremonious loss of virginity at age 15 — to a beefy, British-accented Shia LaBeouf — may seem cold and even cruel, but von Trier mostly seems interested in how such an experience shaped this young woman. Similarly, Joe’s competition with a like-minded, promiscuous blonde (Sophie Kennedy Clark) to see who can conquer the most men during an all-night train ride is the furthest thing from titillating. It’s more of a curious exploration of human extremes.
Von Trier gets a bad rap for being a misogynist. I’d argue that he’s the exact opposite — that he’s fascinated by women in all their flaws and complexities, and he makes movies that are difficult to watch in hopes of understanding them better. His actresses are willing to put themselves through the wringer for him and he gets devastating, powerful work in return. Just look at Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves,” or Bjork in “Dancer in the Dark,” or Nicole Kidman in “Dogville,” or Kirsten Dunst in “Melancholia.” I wasn’t a huge fan of “Antichrist” but I admire the brave lengths to which Gainsbourg went to play a depressed, grieving wife and mother.
During the end credits for “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” we see snippets of what’s coming soon in part two. It’s clear that Joe’s path will turn darker, that her need to humiliate herself will drive her to even more dangerous and painful acts. It’s the only tease in a movie that fearlessly gives up the goods.