In movies like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville, Lars von Trier puts his pure-hearted heroines through almost unimaginable torment, piling misery on top of misery until it’s impossible to believe that they won’t suffer complete mental and physical breakdowns (and sometimes they do). Von Trier often claims that these female protagonists are representatives of his own psyche, and if those films were about the director punishing himself, then Nymphomaniac, at least as represented in the first volume of the two-part film, might be about him allowing himself forgiveness.
Then again, it might just be a perverted story about a sex-obsessed woman. Either way, it’s audacious, powerful and consistently entertaining, which is not always the case with von Trier’s difficult work. Charlotte Gainsbourg, working with von Trier for the third time, plays Joe, introduced lying in an alley, injured from some unspecified attack. Discovered by the friendly, soft-spoken Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård, another von Trier regular), she decides to tell him the story of her life as she recuperates, a story that she says will prove that she’s a terrible human being. Seligman, however, disagrees, frequently reinterpreting her assessments of her actions in a positive light, showing Joe more sympathy than any von Trier heroine before her.
Joe relates her sexual and emotional history in flashbacks, given chapter titles like some sort of twisted Bildungsroman. Indeed, Joe starts her story by saying “I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old” like she’s David Copperfield asserting “I record that I was born.” Played by Stacy Martin in an astonishing debut, the young Joe is sexually insatiable and emotionally manipulative, often feeling nothing as she beds dozens of men, and even, in the movie’s most remarkable scene, observing from the sidelines as the wife (Uma Thurman) of one of her lovers has a complete breakdown in front of her husband and three young sons.
While Nymphomaniac is certainly explicit — body doubles were used to show images of penetrative sex — it’s neither prurient nor clinical. Some of the sex is intensely erotic, some is silly, and some is deeply disturbing, just as it can be in real life. Although Joe is a tortured soul who uses sex to mask pain as often as she uses it for pleasure, the movie is often playful and even quite funny (“I saw it as a pleasurable, humorous story,” Seligman observes after one of Joe’s debased anecdotes). Seligman frequently interrupts Joe’s tale to relate her activities to his own hobbies, allowing for digressions on fly fishing, polyphony, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, all of which are as detailed and clever as Joe’s accounts of her sexual misadventures.
Not every choice that von Trier makes succeeds — the performances by Shia LaBeouf and Christian Slater as Joe’s one true love and her kind-hearted father, respectively, are a bit underwhelming, and the segment in which Joe attends her father’s deathbed is weakened by Slater’s unconvincing acting. And of course the big question is whether the second volume will bring the story to a close in a satisfying fashion, or squander the potential of the first. The credits of Volume I feature a sort of “Next time on …” montage with enough bizarre insanity to suggest that the climax will be just as rewarding as the foreplay.