Lars von Trier's latest film, "Nymphomaniac," which unfolds in two-parts across four hours in its current edit, is nothing less than the director's bid to make his magnum opus.
While 90 minutes shorter than the version von Trier himself has made (rather than the "abridged and censored" version that hits Danish theaters Christmas Day ahead of its 2014 U.S. release), as it stands, "Nymphomaniac" is indeed a major work that tries and, to a large extent, succeeds to organically synthesize the world, ideas and filmmaking savvy of von Trier in one sprawling and ambitious cinematic fable. Somewhat shockingly given the subject matter, the most stimulating material in "Nymphomaniac" isn't the explicit sex but how sexuality is discussed and understood.
This being a von Trier film, there’s a good deal of humor, too. The director's script includes plenty of inventive sexual inquiry, including a monologue that compares the hunt for sex to fly-fishing and a lengthy discussion of how sexual pain compares to the divide between the Western and the Eastern Church.
The nymphomaniac of the title is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose life is chronicled for about four decades or so and who narrates her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), an asexual intellectual who's all mind where Joe, the nymphomaniac, is all body. Seligman, a secular Jew, has literally picked her off the pavement, where he found her bloodied and almost unconscious. He's worried about her and wants to call an ambulance, though she insists that's not necessary and that she’s a "bad human being" and it's all her fault. Seligman finds this hard to believe. The story of how she got there encompasses almost her entire life, seen in long flashbacks.
The film is divided into eight chapters. Except for the framing device, Joe's life is mostly told chronologically, from the first time she can remember experiencing erotic pleasure at age seven (with Joe played by Maja Arsovic) on the bathroom floor with her best friend, B (Sofie Kasten), to the tingling sensation she received from a rope between her legs during a primary school gym class. The latter incident is illustrated with a simple yet very effective shot of a the end of a thick rope slightly moving above the floor, suggesting Joe’s somewhere off-screen -- further up.
It's that kind of effective restraint that eases the viewer into Joe’s increasingly more adult world. By the age of 15 (played by impressive newcomer Stacy Martin), she’s a vampish Lolita in a cardigan, plaid skirt and ruby slippers who orders a biker kid with strong hands named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) to take her virginity -- which he does, in a couple of pointedly calculated thrusts (eight, to be exact, mirroring the number of chapters that make up the movie's story).
Flashbacks to her life with her nagging mother (Connie Nielsen) and more sensitive father (Christian Slater), who's got a thing for trees (hello Freud!), establish that Joe's more tuned into her senses than most people. In short, she's the perfect foil for Seligman, who's all knowledge and no experience -- and thus represents the polar opposite of Joe, who's got no clue about books and famous writers (except in one egregious scene) but excels as an expert at men, copulation and more generally living through her body.
The latter ability is mainly thanks to the teenage B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), who leads a club of young girls who make a deal to have sex with each man only once, as a form of rebellion against love. "Love is the secret ingredient of sex," suggests one of the girls who dares to rebel against the rebels. For Joe, however, "Love is sex with jealousy added," a philosophy that'll make a nymphomaniac of her as she doesn't want to hang on to any man, ever.
Interestingly, at least in this version, most of the sex is relatively tame, with barely any penetration on screen. Even so, "Nymphomaniac" certainly contains more penises, in various states of arousal, than any recent narrative film outside of pornography (actual sex scenes were performed by porn doubles whose heads were then seamlessly replaced in post-production by the heads of the actors).