The grade above is a lie—or, at the very least, a wild estimation. How, after all, can one properly evaluate an incomplete movie? Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier’s new marathon-length odyssey, arrives in worldwide theaters by way of two separate installments, released in the States a few weeks apart. There was never going to be an easy way to get the movie, an epic erotic fable from the director of Dogville, to audiences. Nevertheless, the challenge of reviewing Nymphomaniac: Volume I lies in issuing a judgment on what is, essentially, half of a film. And this isn’t a Kill Bill situation either, an instance of a director providing two very distinct, almost standalone chapters of the same story. The incision occurs at a moment no more conclusive than the midway point of any movie. Just to reiterate: To watch Volume I, currently on VOD and headed soon for theaters, is to subject oneself to the dramatic equivalent of blue balls.
So why should anyone bother with Nymphomaniac now, instead of just waiting to see the two parts back to back? Because half a Von Trier movie is still more arresting—more provocative, more adventurous—than most whole movies on the market. The film is as explicit as advertised; the director serves up a near-constant buffet of exposed flesh, all of it filmed with a matter-of-factness that seems deliberately anti-titillating. (The penetration, too, is real, though all of the principals have been granted genital doubles, their nether-regions digitally replaced by those of the DTF stunt people.) Still, the most shocking thing about Nymphomaniac, with its cock-shot montages and frankly descriptive narration, is how flat-out funny it often is. Has Von Trier finally emerged from the storm cloud of depression that fell over him a few years ago, the one that inspired back-to-back bummers Antichrist and Melancholia?
As if intent on puncturing the inflated seriousness of those last two pictures, the director begins Nymphomaniac with a gorgeous, moody survey of a deserted back alley—blanketed in snow, rivulets of rain water rolling down its rooftops like tears—before abruptly disrupting the stark beauty of the sequence with the chugga-chugga blare of Rammstein’s “Führe Mich.” (The moment plays like a gag—not the film’s best or last.) Found bruised and battered in the streets, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken in by a kindly stranger, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who offers her warm tea, a bed in which to recover, and a sounding board for her thoughts. “I’m just a bad human being,” she proclaims—a confession her benefactor, a glass-half-full humanist, refuses to believe. As proof, she regales him with stories of her sexual awakening and subsequent addiction; Von Trier cuts back and forth between the pair’s lively conversation—fly fishing becomes an amusing metaphor for seduction—and scenes of a young Joe (newcomer Stacy Martin) bounding from one casual hookup to another, beginning with a deflowering by a callous peer (Shia LaBeouf, seemingly cast for his douchiness, not in spite of it).
Sometimes, Nymphomaniac resembles a kind of academic spoof of Euro-art smut, tracing—to paraphrase Rochelle, Rochelle—one woman’s strange, erotic journey. Other times, it plays things straight, keenly dissecting gender roles, as though Von Trier were offering his own distinct version of a Catherine Breillat movie. (The loss-of-virginity scene recalls a similarly unromantic moment in Fat Girl.) Stylistically speaking, Von Trier has reverted to an earlier, more punkish period in his development: There are stock-footage interludes, Godardian intrusions of text, even a few rock-scored montages—the kind of tricks he seemingly abandoned around the time he started drawing Brechtian blueprints on the floors of sound stages. Narratively speaking, his Nymphomaniac is playfully episodic and often downright entertaining; as much as Joe insists her story is one of disturbing misbehavior, audiences may find themselves agreeing with Seligman, who seems frequently amused, even charmed by her anecdotes. The movie’s dramatic and comedic centerpiece finds Joe gambling to rid herself of one of her many lovers, only to have her bluff called by not just the married man she’s challenging but also his enraged wife (Uma Thurman, in a cameo for the history books). It’s uncomfortably hilarious and hilariously uncomfortable.
What Von Trier’s really after, beyond an epic palate cleanse, is something of a mystery at this stage. Is Nymphomaniac another intentional provocation, poking at folks who might be agitated at the very idea of this director making a movie about female sexuality? Given Von Trier’s claims that his heroines are extensions of himself, meant to embody his own issues and vulnerabilities, is Joe’s confession of sin a reflection of the filmmaker’s own self-loathing? (A scene in which the young woman forms a collective of likeminded fornicators, who adopt strict, Dogme 95-style principles they have trouble sticking to, lends credence to that theory.) Or is this all a setup for a major Von Trier punking of the audience, a relatively lighthearted opening passage as prelude to some major, Antichrist-ish punishment to come? Only a look at the second volume (or a five-and-a-half-hour cut Von Trier hasn’t shown to anyone) will clarify what, exactly, Nymphomaniac is. Regardless, no movie—half or full—that introduces the expression “whoring bed” to the cinematic lexicon could be anything less than an instant must-see.
Correction: This review originally contained inaccurate information regarding the nature of how and by whom the film was edited into two parts. The “international” and “American” versions are the same.