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

Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.

International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

National

OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…

Local

MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.

Movies

Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."

Movies

'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.

Television

'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."

Television

TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.

MLB

Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

NFL

Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

Travel

Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.

Education

Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…

Education

NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.

Tech

The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.