Movie Reviews
1:12 pm
Fri March 21, 2014

Addicted To Sex, But Not Really Having Much Fun

Originally published on Sat March 22, 2014 8:47 pm

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has found all sorts of ways to provoke moviegoers in the past — with metal spikes in Antichrist, by ignoring narrative conventions in Dogville, by presenting depression as the only reasonable reaction to the world as we know it — and then destroying that world — in Melancholia. And as if this last weren't enough, he told a Nazi joke to a crowd prepared to shower him with adulation at Cannes.

So it's reasonable to expect something decently outrageous, or perhaps indecently outrageous, from a four-hour opus called Nymphomaniac — of which the first half, designated Volume I, is being released this week in theaters and on VOD. Oddly though, the most shocking thing about the film is that it often prompts laughs.

Start with the opening, in which a middle-aged bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) offers to call an ambulance for a battered woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as she lies battered and bloody in the rain. Her response, "I'd like a cup of tea ... with milk."

So he takes her to his home, gets her dry and warm, serves her tea, and asks her what happened.

"It's my own fault," she responds. "I'm just a bad human being." Then she promptly changes the subject, asking about the fishing flies Seligman has mounted on the wall.

Her host turns out to be a collector of random factoids on everything from fly fishing to fingernail trimming to music theory. He's also a conversation-interruptus listener, which suits her fine.

She's game to talk about losing her virginity at 15 (to distracted motorbike mechanic Shia LaBoeuf) or trolling with a girlfriend for sexual partners on a train. But it's Seligman's interruptions, as when he compares that trolling to "reading the river," that leaven her stories for the movie audience.

Joe's sexual life — in flashbacks, where she's played by Stacy Martin — would be central for most directors. Von Trier finds the framing story more intriguing — a place where the characters are more than the sum of their body parts, or even their desires and addictions. It's a place for philosophizing, observing, analyzing — often inaccurately, but always entertainingly.

It allows him to step back from Joe's tales of her seven to 10 daily sexual encounters, to employ various cinematic tricks — split-screen images, for instance, as Seligman represents one trio of her conquests in a kind of harmonic convergence, one of the men representing a musical baseline, another rhythm, the third melody.

He also stages what you might call a minute-long penis parade, and has fun illustrating a sequence where his heroine is shagging so many men that she can't keep them straight; she has to roll dice to figure out how to reply when they phone.

The fact that she's not getting emotionally involved, of course, doesn't mean the men don't. Which can get complicated, as when one guy's wife, played with a frigidly amused calm by Uma Thurman, brings her kids over with an ever-so-polite request to show them the "whoring bed," only to devolve slowly into screams of rage.

What this first half of Nymphomaniac ends up being about is emotional intercourse — something the heroine treats lightly until it becomes clear that despite all the physical intimacy she's experienced, she's irretrievably lonely.

I'm hesitant to make too many predictions about where the story might be going. Von Trier's movies tend to take a sharp turn at the two-thirds mark, and we're not there yet. But based on the foreplay, I'd say tuning in for Nymphomaniac: Volume II, which arrives next month, is a no-brainer.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Again, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is known for provoking moviegoers. Many were revolted by his film "Antichrist," which has been called misogynist and the product of a sick mind. His award-winner "Melancholia" presented depression as the only reasonable reaction to the world. And his latest provocation, well, it's right there in the title, "Nymphomaniac: Vol. I," the first half of a four-hour opus on sex.

And if that's not enough of a warning, if kids are within earshot, you might want to rejoin us in about three minutes.

Critic Bob Mondello says the film is racy enough in visuals and subject matter that he's glad he's reviewing it on the radio.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When the middle-aged bachelor, played by Stellan Skarsgard, finds Charlotte Gainsbourg's Joe lying battered and bloody in the rain and offers to call her an ambulance, she tells him what she really wants is a cup of tea. So he takes her to his home, gets her dry and warm and serves her tea and questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I")

STELLAN SKARSGARD: (As Seligman) Were you robbed?

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: (As Joe) It's my own fault. I'm just a bad human being.

SKARSGARD: (As Seligman) I've never met a bad human being.

GAINSBOURG: (As Joe) Well, you have now.

SKARSGARD: (As Seligman) Do you want to talk about it?

MONDELLO: Joe doesn't, really, and changes the subject.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVE, "NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I")

GAINSBOURG: (As Joe) Why is that ridiculous fish hook hanging there?

SKARSGARD: (As Seligman) That's a fly. Fly fishing is about tying feathers and...

MONDELLO: Her host turns out to be full of random factoids on everything from fingernail trimming to music theory. He's also a good listener, so Joe starts to tell him the story of her life, her sexual life in flashbacks where she's played by Stacy Martin, and her first conquest at 15 is motorbike mechanic Shia LaBeouf.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NYMPHOMANIC")

STACY MARTIN: (As Joe) If I ask you to take my virginity, would that be a problem?

SHIA LABEOUF: (As Jerome) No, I don't see a problem.

MONDELLO: Soon, she's telling Skarsgard about a school girl sex club she formed with a friend and about how they went trolling for partners down train corridors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I")

SKARSGARD: (As Seligman) Can I interrupt here? What you were doing when you walked down that corridor, you were reading the river. Most of the large fish stay sheltered from the currents.

MONDELLO: If this reaction strikes you as comic, that turns out to be very much the mood that writer/director Lars von Trier is after. To illustrate Joe's tales of seven to 10 sexual encounters a day, he stages everything from a penis parade to a sequence where his heroine is shagging so many men that she can't keep them all straight and has to roll dice to figure out how to reply when they phone.

The fact that she's not getting emotionally involved, of course, doesn't mean they don't, which can get complicated, as when one guy's wife, Uma Thurman, brings her kids over with an ever-so-polite request.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I")

UMA THURMAN: (As Mrs. H.) Would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed? Let's go see Daddy's favorite place. Oh, so this where it all happened.

MONDELLO: What this first half of "Nymphomaniac" ends up being about is emotional intercourse, something the heroine treats lightly until it becomes clear that despite all of the physical intimacy, she is irretrievably lonely. I'm hesitant to make too many predictions about where the story's going. Von Trier's movies tend to take a sharp turn at the two-thirds mark and we're not there yet. But based on the foreplay, I'd say tuning in for "Nymphomaniac: Vol. II," which arrives next month, is a no-brainer. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.