Punk provocateur and genuine artist, Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac, Volume I” is his latest depressive, assaultive, explicit and wholly original consideration of the human experience. The title doesn’t mislead: The porn opus isn’t for all.
But it’s a surprisingly entertaining and accessible drama from the Denmark-based writer-director of “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark” and “Melancholia,” who makes semi-experimental films with big-screen mentalities that combine the intimate with the cosmic and often center on suffering, sacrificing women.
He continues in that vein, but with a lighter touch than usual in this story that is graphic, funny, banal, bonkers and beautiful.
In an unnamed country where international cast members attempt British accents, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a 40ish woman found lying in the street, beaten and bloody, is given shelter by a middle-aged academic named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard).
Describing herself as a “bad human being” who has had sex with countless men, Joe begins telling Seligman her story, shifting things into flashback.
At age 2, Joe became aware of her genitals. At 15 (played by Tracy Martin), Joe asks a young man named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) to deflower her. He obliges but shows less sensitivity to Joe than to his moped.
Obsessed with sex while averse to love, Joe vies with best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) in train-sex contests and is soon welcoming strings of men into her bed. She receives a visit from a wrathful Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), the wife of one of the lovers who fill her slate.
At other points, Joe spends happy time with her nature-loving father (Christian Slater). Later, she visits him on his hospital deathbed.
Von Trier alternates between the sexual sequences featuring Martin’s Joe and the present-day interactions in which Gainsbourg’s tale-spinning Joe keeps Seligman intrigued. In a running bit milked for comic effect, Seligman responds intellectually to Joe’s carnal tales, finding parallels between Joe’s sexual behavior and the sport of fly fishing. (Elsewhere, Bach, Fibonacci and cake forks enter the equation.)
While some of what transpires is ridiculous, and the actors don’t always convey what’s inside the characters, the movie remains stimulating, interesting and frequently funny. Beneath the explicitness, it is about people striving to feel something satisfying and real.
Nymphomaniac, Volume 1
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf
Written and directed by Lars von Trier
Running time 2 hours, 3 minutes