Review: ‘Nymphomaniac: Volume I’ is Lars Von Trier’s warmest, funniest film

Felicity Gilbert and Stacy Martin want to have sex with Shia LeBeouf in one of their rare clothed moments in Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac: Volume I." Credit: Christian Geisnaes
Felicity Gilbert and Stacy Martin want to have sex with Shia LaBeouf in one of their rare clothed moments in Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Volume I.”
Credit: Christian Geisnaes

‘Nymphomaniac: Volume I’
Director: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

Lars Von Trier is a funny guy. This might not always be apparent, given that he’s tortured an almost blind Bjork (“Dancer in the Dark”), immolated Kirsten Dunst in a fiery apocalypse (“Melancholia”) and had Charlotte Gainsbourg snip off a certain ladypart with rusty scissors (“Antichrist”). But even his most heinous on-screen acts are played with a sense of P.T. Barnum relish. He’s the cat next to the spilled milk, amused that he went as far as he did. Indeed, the third part of his self-described “Depression” trilogy, which started with “Antichrist,” is the warmest and (probably) funniest film he’s ever made, even though it’s about a self-diagnosed sex addict (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounting her adventures in bed and elsewhere with a revolving door of strangers, plus Shia LaBeouf.

Admittedly, “warm” only describes the first “volume” of “Nymphomaniac,” which has been divided in two. (“Volume II” will be out on April 4, while a second, much longer version, with hardcore inserts and even more chatter, that will be available later.) It doesn’t describe the beginning, which starts with Gainsbourg’s Joe lying, bloody, in a dirty alley. She’s rescued by a recluse, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who becomes her sounding board as she recounts tales of her youthful hyper-prurience (when she’s played by Stacy Martin).

Actually, he’s not a sounding board at all. He constantly interrupts her with digressions, ancillary stories, anything that doesn’t have to do with sex. (There’s a good reason, eventually revealed, for his obliviousness.) Hearing the prefix “nympho” makes him think of fly fishing. Later he will talk about rugelach. (It’s all germane — sort of.) Seligman essentially functions as living footnotes, annotating Joe’s stories with all the brainy references that the less gutter-brained sect of “Nymphomaniac”’s audience will get. (When something is clearly a metaphor, Seligman actually points it out.) This isn’t because Von Trier is afraid viewers won’t get them; it’s a running gag, and a hilarious one, that also adds rich texture to a film that would perhaps be monotonous without it. A film about addiction instead feels like it’s about everything.

As for the boinking itself, it is — at least in this quasi-approachable cut — nonjudgmental and refreshingly not miserable. Even at its most debased (in this volume, that is), it’s the opposite of most art house shtupping, which tends to be depicted as what characters do instead of shooting each other repeatedly in the face. In fact, it’s not very sexy, in part because it’s so short, even when the actors are grappling with prosthetics. Von Trier floats the idea that sex without love is actually preferable — the opposite of what society, and sometimes even science, says. (A recent report claimed that women have bigger, more satisfying orgasms when banging a partner with whom she shares a history. This has been a semi-Seligman-esque aside.)

But even that worldview evolves over this volume. It’s a big, open film, one that finds Von Trier prankish and disarmingly sincere, as with scenes with young Joe and her nature- and science-loving father, played endearingly by no less than Christian Slater. Its fragmented nature means it’s not entirely traumatic when it suddenly stops.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Mayor pledges lower greenhouse gas emissions from New…

Just hours before the start of the People’s Climate March on Sunday, and two days ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit, Mayor Bill de…

National

The best places to see the Northern Lights…

A large solar storm hit the Earth's atmosphere and will tonight illuminate the skies with aurora borealis -- also known as the Northern Lights.

Local

Police officer killed Sunday morning Bronx crash, 8…

One NYPD police officer was killed and eight other officers were injured early Sunday morning when the van they were traveling in crashed  in the…

National

Pennsylvania police shooter manhunt near home of suspect's…

A police manhunt intensified on Friday for the gunman who killed an officer and wounded another in an ambush at a Pennsylvania police barracks a week ago.

Television

'How to Get Away with' mischaracterizing Shondra Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes read Alessandra Stanley's New York Times piece about her being "an angry black woman" and "a romance writer" and it did not sit well with her.

Gossip

New nude celebrity selfies leak … and Clay…

A new batch of nude selfies of Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Vanessa Hudgens, Lake Bell and Avril Lavigne hit the web and Clay Aiken has something to say!

Television

James Spader's route to villainy on "The Blacklist"

In honor of the second season premiere of "The Blacklist" tonight, where James Spader plays good guy/bad guy Raymond “Red” Reddington, it’s a good time to look back at Spader’s…

Television

True Detective

NFL

Jay Cutler takes Marc Trestman's coaching to heart

While Jay Cutler turned to an autobiography on the man who would be his head coach, Trestman had personal experience with the player.

NFL

Jets vs. Bears: 3 things to watch

Jets fans likely chalked up Monday's matchup with the Bears as a loss when the NFL schedule came out. But given their team's play so…

NFL

Rashad Jennings carries Giants in first win this…

Rashad Jennings, who came to New York from Oakland last year, by way of Jacksonville, was highly coveted this offseason by general manager Jerry Reese.

NFL

3 things we learned as Giants pick up…

The Giants picked up their first win of the season over the Texans.

Career

Here's how to make the most of visit…

You’re primped, you’re looking polished, you’re prepared with a stack of resumes. Job fair hunters, unite! There are a few things to keep in mind…

Education

Learn how to study effectively and stop cramming…

Picture this: It’s midterm week, and college students everywhere are trying to frantically memorize all of the math formulas, political theories and historical facts that…

Parenting

How motherhood inspired Bethenny Frankel's new book

Bethenny Frankel's new children's book is about how her daughter and dog didn't always get alone.

Parenting

A sneaky way to serve kids fruits and…

"My First Juices and Smoothies" gives smoothie recipes for kids.