'Nymphomaniac: Volume I and II'
What: The films use comedy and inventive storytelling to recount the story of a young woman's excessive sexual escapades.
Where playing: Cinema Center (“Volume I” only)
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Rating: NC-17 for levels of sex and nudity
3 stars out of four
Lars von Trier's four-hour “Nymphomaniac,” which is being released in two “volumes,” is a sexual odyssey that could be described as thoughtful, provocative, ridiculous, comically deranged, electrically composed, occasionally beautiful, unforgettable and terrible.
It's all of the above: a cinematic orgy from one of the movies' most talented and most brazenly tasteless filmmakers.
“Nymphomaniac,” which is playing in theaters and on video-on-demand, arrives with a sneering punk aura, notorious for its copious amounts of graphic sex — an art-house blast of pornography. The sex and more will surely turn off many, but there is nothing titillating about “Nymphomaniac.”
It is clinical and passionless about its sex, but rollickingly comic and inventive about the telling of its tale. And it's distinctly a told tale, a story recounted in chapters by our nympho protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who's discovered curled up in a bruised heap in an alley by the monkish, bookish Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). With an academic curiosity, he takes her in and happily listens to Joe's life story, from age 2 on, through the lens of her insatiable sex addiction.
After each section, Seligman makes his observations. He doesn't judge, disputing her when she says she's “immoral” and “just a bad human being.”
At one point, he references the classic bawdy stories of “The Canterbury Tales” and Boccaccio's “The Decameron.” That's the lineage “Nymphomaniac” aims for: a playfully told mix of sex, grief and comedy, updated for a more graphic medium.
As Joe tells it, she (played by the lithe, blank model Stacy Martin as a young woman) offered up her virginity at 15 to an Englishman named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), who promptly takes it before returning to fixing his motorcycle.
She begins sleeping with countless men, cycling through as many as 10 a night. (Von Trier kindly supplies us with a series of close-ups of their genitalia.)
She takes no apparent pleasure from the sex. She remains unemotional even after a man, radically mistaking her signals, leaves his wife and children for her, only to be trailed to Joe's apartment by his scorned wife (Uma Thurman) and her three boys. Thurman tours the boys around the apartment to show them what their father has left them for.
There's a vignette of Joe's father, too, played by Christian Slater as a kind man walking through the woods with Joe, contemplating the “souls of the trees.” Jerome continues to drift in and out of Joe's life, and they eventually marry and have a son.
But love has no calming effect on her lust, and she begins (in the second volume) visiting a cold, controlling S&M pro. There are other escapades, too, but it's this chapter that sets the tone of pain and self-hatred of Volume II.