Nymphomaniac: Vol. I—the first installment of a two-part film whose second half will be released in early April—takes the viewer on an event-filled but ultimately tiresome trudge through the by-now-familiar psychosexual marshes of Lars von Trier’s imagination. In addition to many scenes of graphic, apparently unsimulated sex (in reality a seamless digital blend of the actors’ top halves with the business ends of body doubles from the porn world), Nymphomaniac boasts a Scandinavian-style smorgasbord of non sequiturs. There’s an extended metaphor comparing human sexual behavior and the art of fly-fishing. A montage of still close-ups of penises, accompanied by some racially tinged voice-over commentary about their respective hues and sizes. Illustrated exegeses on Bach’s three-part polyphony, Poe’s lonely death of delirium tremens, and the quasi-magical mathematical progression known as the Fibonacci sequence. Somewhere along the way Christian Slater will soil himself; more humiliatingly still, Shia LaBeouf will attempt a British accent. Yet for all its narrative swerves and stylistic disruptions, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I has an exhausting sameness, a centripetal solipsism that makes that “I” at the end of the title feel vaguely like a threat: Don’t be thinking we’re anywhere near done here. I don’t know when I’ve seen a movie that’s this unpredictable while also being this dull.
The tale of a young woman’s—what is the reverse of “sexual awakening”? sexual benumbing, I guess?—Nymphomaniac has the loose, meandering structure of a published sketchbook of ideas, some of which were more ready for publication than others. (The movie opens theatrically on March 21 and is available on video on demand now.) In a framing device (or is it the main story?), a middle-aged academic, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a slightly younger woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lying beaten and bloody in the street one snowy night and brings her to his apartment to recover. (It’s never clear just where or when the story is set—information gaps that were no doubt intended to give Joe’s story a fairy-tale universality, but which only add to its frustrating vagueness.) As she sits in his bed drinking coffee and eating rugelach (a Jewish pastry that provides an occasion for brief digressions on both dessert forks and anti-Zionism), Joe begins to tell her life story to the curious, patient, occasionally horrified Seligman.
Since childhood, Joe explains over a series of flashbacks, she’s been a sex-obsessed, love-allergic perv with a need to rack up as many erotic experiences as possible, satisfying or no. As a teenager—played by the lissome-bodied, blank-faced Stacy Martin—Joe forms a sex club with her girlfriends, where activities include group masturbation and the chanting of parodic Latin prayers (“mea vulva, mea maxima vulva”). She and one special friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), hop a train with no tickets, on a bet to see who can have sex with the most men before they get off. But B eventually betrays Joe’s credo by falling for someone: “The secret ingredient of sex is love,” she whispers to her friend at one of their club meetings, and the rigorously unsentimental Joe is off to seek her sexual fortune elsewhere. In a series of non-chronological vignettes, we watch young Joe coldly play multiple lovers off one another, at one point inviting a devoted suitor to her apartment to drink coffee and watch TV while the previous dude finishes up.
Occasionally, real dramatic scenes will spring from the loamy soil of von Trier’s free-wandering fantasy. But they’re isolated sketches, little one-act plays in the theater of degradation. One man on the train resists Joe’s advances because he’s on his way home to impregnate his ovulating wife: She seduces him anyway, literally sucking the life force out of him. Later, she gives an importuning married lover a fake ultimatum, in an effort to get rid of him; he takes her at her word and leaves his wife (Uma Thurman), who proceeds to show up at Joe’s place with three small children in tow and stage a masochistic fit worthy of Joan Crawford. “Would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?” she asks the expressionless Joe. When Joe’s next assignation shows up at the door soon after, flowers in hand, and finds himself playing a supporting role in this total stranger’s family meltdown, the scene takes a sharp right from camp melodrama into something like sex farce. The moment is funny, nasty, and surprising—but also, given its non-relationship to the movie surrounding it, disappointingly low-stakes (after Thurman’s operatically wailing exit, we never see her or her family again, though I guess she has another upcoming chapter in which to burst back in).
“Basically, we’re all waiting for permission to die,” observes Joe glumly in voice-over as her younger self mopes around the courtyard of the hospital where her father (Christian Slater, confusingly) is about to breathe his last. For my part, I was just hoping that death, if come it must, would precede the much-discussed sex scene with Shia LaBeouf, who plays Jerôme, a macho cad who’s responsible for Joe’s teenage deflowering and who keeps reappearing, by coincidence, at key moments in her life. (Unless, of course, she’s making all this up to keep her host entertained, a possibility Seligman raises at one point.) When Shia’s big, naked moment does come at the end, it’s less queasily graphic than anticipated, though there are a couple of close-up shots in which his LaBeouf (in reality, that of a digitally superimposed porn double) is far from shy. Was von Trier’s casting of the uncharismatic Transformers star as Joe’s one true love a deliberate gesture of deromanticization? “Love distorts things,” the older Joe reflects, looking back with shame on her fixation on the cloddish Jerôme. “I couldn’t free myself of the image of Jerôme and his careless elegance.” Since the audience experiences Jerôme as anything but elegant (and LaBeouf’s wavering cockney accent as anything but effortless), this line seems meant as a commentary on the dissonance between Joe’s subjective experience of her beloved and his objective reality. Or maybe LaBeouf’s incongruous presence in this European movie of ideas (dumb ideas sometimes, but ideas) was just a counterintuitive casting stunt.
Like many of von Trier’s heroines (including, most recently, the grieving mother Gainsbourg played in Antichrist and Kirsten Dunst’s depressed bride in Melancholia), Joe the sensation-seeking nihilist is a clear stand-in for the director, who has made no secret of his past struggles with depression and his intent to treat filmmaking as a kind of artistic therapy. Gainsbourg’s Joe, a burned-out anti-love rebel, has sex to transcend the pain and anguish of existence; von Trier, for his part, seems to be making movies lately for much the same reason. In both cases, it’s the people around them—the enervated lovers, the exhausted audience—who are left to pick up the pieces.
Correction, March 12, 2014: The image originally accompanying this article was identified as a still from Nymphomaniac: Vol. I. It was not. The image has been removed and replaced with a still from the film. The caption was also corrected. (Return.)