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'Nymphomaniac': Chasing Sex, But Only On Her Terms

Felicity Gilbert, Shia LaBeouf and Stacy Martin in one of the episodic flashbacks that spin out the story of <em>Nymphomaniac: Volume I.</em>
Christian Geisnaes
Magnolia Pictures
Felicity Gilbert, Shia LaBeouf and Stacy Martin in one of the episodic flashbacks that spin out the story of Nymphomaniac: Volume I.

Lars von Trier's latest provocation is an episodic sexual epic called Nymphomaniac, which comes in two two-hour parts, or "volumes," though it's basically one movie sliced in half. The thinking must have been, "Who wants four hours of hardcore sex and philosophizing?," and if you say, "Me, me!," I suggest seeing both back to back: It's an art-house orgy!

Should you see it at all? I recommend it guardedly. It's dumb, but in a bold, ambitious way movies mostly aren't these days, especially when there's sex in the equation. And it's funny, sometimes intentionally.

The protagonist is what the title says: a woman who craves constant sex. That's sex without love or emotional connection, sex to assert what she calls her power as a woman.

The story is told in flashbacks. In the prologue, a seeming Good Samaritan named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) stumbles upon a filthy, bloodied woman in a courtyard. Her name is Joe, she's played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and while he tends to her wounds in his bachelor flat, she tells him of her life.

Years earlier, Joe — played as a teen and younger woman by newcomer Stacy Martin — offers her virginity to Shia LaBeouf's rich boy Jerome, who accepts it indifferently while fixing a bike.

After this momentous non-event, Joe cruises shamelessly. The older Joe tells Seligman about a key day in her teens: a sexual-conquest bet with a friend.

"The idea was a competition," she tells him. "We were to go on a train trip. He said there was no need for tickets. The one who had f- - - -d the most men when we reached the destination would win the chocolate sweets."

Seligman, for his part, finds parallels with his old fishing book, The Complete Angler.

"Can I interrupt here?" he asks. Then, explaining: "What you were doing when you walked down that corridor — you were reading the river."

It's hard to tell if Seligman's interjection is meant to be serious, or if von Trier is satirizing the tendency to over-intellectualize --Seligman's and his own. I think it's both. We laugh but we're supposed to buy the parallel, too. Von Trier makes the case, in film after film, that humans are totally controlled by forces biological and/or social: They have as much free will as fish.

I find that viewpoint — along with most of von Trier's movies — untenable. But I have to admit that in the sexual arena he has a case, at least regarding males. One of Nymphomaniac's best scenes is on that train, when Joe throws herself at a man who turns out to be saving his sperm for a wife who desperately wants a child. He begs and cries that she leave him be. But of course he eventually succumbs.

The origins of Joe's compulsion are more complicated. Gainsbourg and Martin have matching long faces and lithe bodies, but it's hard to read anything in the younger Joe's expression beyond a robotic determination to have sex — and later, when the older Joe forms an erotic relationship with a man who whips her, to be punished.

In one sequence, there's a parade of multi-racial, multi-ethnic male sexual organs in close-up, followed by more of Seligman's comparisons. We get his musings on mathematics' Fibonacci sequence and, later, on the so-called cantus firmus at the core of Bach's polyphonic compositions.

In the days since seeing the film, I've pondered Seligman's comparisons between Joe's peculiar sexual urges and fishing, Bach, and Fibonacci, and I've concluded there's not much to them. But they are entertaining. As the Sundance Kid would say to Butch Cassidy, "You just keep thinkin', Lars. That's what you're good at."

There is one scene that rips the fabric of Nymphomaniac, not because it breaks from von Trier's view of humanity, but because he has written such a juicy character you almost forget what movie you're watching. She's the wife of one of Joe's lovers, and she's played by Uma Thurman. She bursts into Joe's flat with her two little children in tow and goes from elaborate mock politeness to withering denunciation. Thurman is gloriously exhibitionistic; it's as if Kill Bill had been re-imagined along the lines of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who'd have thought this aging punk misanthropist Lars von Trier had so much blood in him?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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