As you might have expected, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol 1 (the first half of a four hour sexual epic) is more intellectually, than physically arousing. The film opens in a dripping, brick-lined back alley where Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten up and lying on the cold wet ground. He offers to call an ambulance, but she protests. Instead, he brings her back to his apartment, where he lives alone, nursing her with broth, while she nurses his imagination with stories of her life-long exploits as a nymphomaniac.
What follows is a tale of sexual discovery, familial angst, love, self-hate, manipulation, desperation, and despair. It all begins amidst an air of dispassionate, intellectual observation, with Seligman making comparisons between Joe’s sexual escapades and fly fishing, and Joe willingly taking up the analogy. But this descriptive dance of predator and prey is complicated by the human implications of sexuality: a broken family, a dying father, a numbing callousness that begins to engulf Joe. Though there’s a religious icon on Seligman’s wall, he can’t fathom the growing sense of guilt and culpability that seems to torment his battered visitor.
There are many aspects of Nymphomaniac‘s style that feel staid and deliberate (and occasionally corny), with spurts of dialogue and plots that seem leaden. Other scenes, particular one featuring Uma Thurman as a mother confronting her cheating husband and Joe, with their three kids in tow, sizzle with von Trier’s familiar, fluent rancor. And as much as he is exploring the nature of sex, von Trier also seems to be playing with literary form. Allen Poe is referenced outright, and there is something hollow, forlorn, and Victorian about the movie’s narrative style. I also caught tonal hints of Goethe and the Strum and Drang of Young Werther’s self-destructive heart.
Joe is a peculiar kind of neo-romantic. Sex is a calculated method to attain connectedness, not with other people, but with her self, as well as an ambitious sense of the amorphous sexual “other.” She chooses lovers through games – at first on a train with a friend, and later on with a dice game she invents – in order to distance the erotic act from the clutches of love. This may seem very, cold, dispassionate, and cerebral – very Lars von Trier – but a late allegory that compares the modes of Joe’s various affairs to the voices in a Bach polyphony, brings the entire sexual fugue to a surprising and captivating emotional life. It’s enough of a tease to make you long for volume two.