There’s something kinky in Denmark, although despite what you may have heard, it’s not Volume 1 of Lars von Trier’s intellectually, artistically, and philosophically exacting Nymphomaniac. (Snippets of scenes from the forthcoming Volume 2 appear to promise considerably more rough trade and self-debasement.) Yes, there’s explicit sex featuring coltish young women and maladroit males of all ages, a harrowing familial backstory, and purposefully bleak, moistly saturated visuals, but this first half of what was originally a single four-hour-plus provocation is, if anything, a therapeutic treatise on self-healing, the omnipresent awe of sexual fulfillment, and ulcerating guilt. It is, at its core, a tale of confession and forgiveness. Appropriately, Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 carries a host of quasi-religious overtones, even as the story descends into occasional erotic squalor and gluttony. It’s also, against all suppositions, frequently hilarious and aims instead to arouse the mind over the libido.
Much of the film’s dry wit comes from Stellan Skarsgård’s monklike Seligman, who is a veritable fount of artistic and literary wisdom. As the film begins, this quietly optimistic nowhere man nearly stumbles over Joe (Gainsbourg), lying battered and bloody in an exquisitely awful alleyway. He takes her back to his spartan apartment and fixes her some tea as she recounts to him the increasingly seedy stations of her cross to bear. Fixated first on adolescent masturbation and then greedy, self-satisfying nymphomania from a very early age, Joe describes herself as “a bad person,” but in Seligman’s eyes (and discourse), she’s more of a penitent, hellbent on painting her rapacious sexuality as a damnable sin. He reproaches her at every turn of her tale – the film is broken up into “chapters” – by gently offering up other, less neurotic explanations for her omnivorous lustiness.
While Gainsbourg – the daughter of another great sexual and artistic provocateur: the Gallic icon Serge Gainsbourg – may be initially perceived as another in von Trier’s long line of damaged female characters (see the director’s Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist for reference), it’s her character’s younger self, played with wide-eyed coquettishness by Stacy Martin, who initiates the dirty deeds that make up the main story. While Seligman rattles off digressions on Bach, the tritone (the dissonant musical interval nicknamed the diabolus in musica for its allegedly wicked sound), and fly-fishing, Joe-now and Joe-then act as admittedly self-loathing foils. It’s all a bit like eavesdropping on an angel conversing with the Whore of Babylon – but most assuredly funnier.
Transformers mainstay LaBeouf appears as the laddish Jerôme (Joe’s potential shot at actual love), and while the casting might initially seem to be either an obscure, von Trierian in-joke, or, worse, just plain bad casting, the actor manages to make an impact in a film that is a virtual catalogue of brazen, head-on – pun intended – collisions. Even more satisfying is the return of Christian Slater as Joe’s physician father, whom she loves dearly.
I could go on and on here, but not yet having seen Nymphomaniac: Volume 2, it feels too much like critiquing a film I’ve seen only half of, which is never a good idea. Suffice it to say that von Trier’s allegedly pornographic broadside against human sexuality is – thus far – more of a meditation than an outright flagellation. The filmmaker brings neither condescension nor moral outrage here. A father confessor to his benighted characters, von Trier may revel in the muck, but Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 is anything but a dirty movie.