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.