Lars von Trier is going to Hell. The devil, after all, has all the best tunes, and on the evidence of “Nymphomaniac Part 1,” which has its world premiere in its unexpurgated, director-preferred 145-minute version at the Berlin Film Festival, von Trier is a maestro at his zenith, conducting what may very well be his magnum opus. It is a symphony, or perhaps a thrusting, punk-inflected heavy metal power grind of rude, funny, sexy, sad, gross, pretentious, meta and brilliant, and sometimes all of these things at the same time. But out of what should be discordant, salacious, self-indulgent and ugly, von Trier, through sheer storytelling and filmmaking chutzpah, has crafted something witty and clever and thrilling, that absorbed our attention like a sponge and displayed, beneath all that brio, a kind of wisdom we haven’t seen before from the filmmaker. All while retaining his trademark irreverence and taboo-busting iconoclasm, of course. Now, given that ‘Nymphomaniac” was #6 on our most anticipated films of the year list, it’s not like it had no expectations to live up to, yet it soared up past all of them, delivering an incredibly rich, engaging, occasionally challenging film whose 145 minutes flew by, culminating in an ending that in itself delivered such a clever, jolting cliffhanger, that it nearly made the decision to split it into two films completely forgivable. Except for the fact that we’re so utterly gagging for more right now that ‘Vol II’ can’t come quickly enough.
The framework of the story you probably already know: Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found bleeding and semi-conscious in an alleyway by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), and brought back to his flat to recuperate when she refuses to go to a hospital. As he feeds her cake and tea and flyfishing analogies, she recounts her sexual history, as a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac “sinner” ever since she was a child. The film is then divided into five chapters, each of which detail a different period in Joe’s sexual experience, in which she’s mostly played by remarkable newcomer Stacy Martin, and the vignettes range from the transgressive, to the pretty damn hot actually, to the sweet, to the extremely sad. This last is best exemplified by the “Delirium” section featuring Christian Slater as Joe’s beloved dying father and it is remarkably affecting, showing von Trier’s astonishing ability to manipulate the tone of his films and still remain coherent: here he is completely un-ironic, completely serious, employing no sly wink, only a finely channeled fury at fate, and perhaps God, for the unbelievable injustice and indignity of death. There are only two subjects, after all, but it’s impressive to find a film called “Nymphomaniac” make such an excellent segment out of the other one.
The x-rated ‘1001 Nights‘ structure also works remarkably well, although in lesser hands (both in terms of acting and direction) the cuts back to the dingy bedroom where the actual storytelling is taking place between this battered Scheherazade and her kindly, preternaturally nonjudgmental Sultan would run the risk of being “the boring bits in between the sexy bits.” Instead, Skarsgard’s gentle but deeply screwy nursemaid/confessor elicits a lot of the laughs by his enthusiastic relating of every story Joe tells, no matter how outré, to some aspect of fly fishing, or classic literature, or geometry, or Bach, about all of which he seems to have a deep, if eclectic knowledge. And Joe’s motivation in telling him all this, while it’s never spelled out, comes in and out of focus: Is she trying to shock him? To confess her sins? To impress him? Or merely to repay his kindness with the only part of herself that she seems to believe has any real value — her story? We’re never sure, but, as is the throughline in all of the segments so far, when it comes to her relations with men, it is Joe who is resolutely in control, owning her story and the telling of it, much as she owns her body and the using of it for pleasure.
This is also what makes this von Trier film (so far anyway) so compellingly feminist (sorry if anyone’s frightened off by that word, but it’s unavoidable here and seriously, if you are, grow the fuck up). Yes, let’s take a look at that sentence again, notorious “misogynist” von Trier delivering a feminist message? But there it is. Who’s to say what will happen in ‘Vol II’ (and judging by the credits tease here, it does get a lot darker —let’s not forget Joe’s unexplained bruises and bloodiness and her masochist, self-punishing streak) but part of what delivers such a pleasurable illicit thrill here is the first-person perspective offered on an unapologetically, confrontationally sexual female character’s psyche: it has just not been done like this before.
But hey, enough with the thematic deconstruction (we’re sure we’ll be unpacking this for weeks to come anyway), what about the sex? Good news, horndogs male and female, in between digressions about fingernails and Fibonacci sequences, there’s plenty of it, and in this longer version anyway, a large number of erect penises (as well as a gallery of images of flaccid ones), plenty of close-up penetration and some macro images of tongue against labia and mouth on penis (there’s a also a very graphic scene in which students are being taught how to perform an abortion, which is the one point we did see LVT in full-on exploitative provocateur mode; not totally sure we needed that). But what was surprising is actually how, on the rare occasion (and not necessarily the penetration scenes) the film actually struck us as sexy, something that, to be honest, we don’t come across that often. But here, perhaps because they deal in the realm of a female erotic imagination that we hardly ever see depicted so unsanctimoniously, and because there’s something exhilarating in relating to Joe’s agency if not her decisions, there really are turn-ons. Is that gross to admit? Well, fuck it, it’s true for this female. And von Trier even has a little joke at the expense of the difference between male and female eroticism (not that men won’t be equally into the gorgeous, lithe, uninhibited younger Joe getting it on six ways to Sunday), when he strays once into Seligman’s own fantasy, cued by Joe talking about her “education.” The image of young Joe, presented as a sexualized schoolgirl pointing at a map of the U.K. and intoning “Glasgow. Aberdeen.” is so daft in this context that even Seligman looks abashed when called back to the present.
There are some great performances too. Aside from Gainsbourg, Skarsgard, Slater and Martin, whom we’ve already called out, in her arch, bitter, excoriating segment as a spurned wife and mother, it’s the best we’ve seen Uma Thurman, well, ever. Shia Laboeuf is maybe less convincing, mainly because he’s described as possessing a “careless elegance” which is honestly not something we’ve ever really seen in him. But if his accent is a bit wonky, at least he’s playing an asshole, so it’s not like we’re supposed to sympathize. Even the smaller roles, from Joe’s childhood friend B (with whom she forms a club whose mantra is, hilariously, “Mea Vulva, Mea Maxima Vulva”) played by Sophie Kennedy Clark, to the physically chilly presence of Connie Nielsen as Joe’s mother, are perfectly cast too, notes in von Trier’s layered compositon that he plays on us like a violin, or perhaps a church organ, with scarcely a bum note hit.
We won’t lie. When it was first announced that notorious provocateur Lars von Trier was going to make a sexually explicit two-part film called “Nymphomaniac,” the cynic inside us rolled her eyes. For so long von Trier has been the outspoken bad boy, willing to fuck cinema any way he could to get a rise out of us that it seemed this might simply be a stunt, another cry for attention from a personality that thrives on controversy. Yet “Nymphomaniac Part 1,” bold and daring as it is, is a whole a lot more than a quick shag; in fact it seduced us. Things no doubt get darker, more self-disgusted and less buoyant in “Part 2” (this is part of a “Depression trilogy” after all), but bring it on. If Lars von Trier is going to hell with “Nymphomaniac,” we’re in a hurry to join him there. [A]