It’s easy, and so very tempting, to dismiss Lars von Trier as a joke — the shallow, grinning prankster of international cinema. He’s the post-adolescent brat who got banned from Cannes for calling himself a Nazi, who hires Hollywood stars and makes them do horrible things, who dumped on America in “Dogville” without ever bothering to visit. (He’s phobic about plane travel, apparently.) Really? Please.
If only his movies weren’t so bloody brilliant.
Von Trier’s latest cannonball across the ramparts of taste is “Nymph()maniac: Vol. 1,” available on demand the last few weeks and appearing in theaters today. It’s an improvement over 2011’s “Melancholia” (a.k.a. “I’m Depressed, So the World Has to End”) and within shouting distance of 2009’s “Antichrist,” a work of astonishing primeval power. The title of the new film, with its offenses against punctuation and threat of a sequel, seems calculated to shock, but what’s most disquieting about “Nymph()maniac” is how funny, tender, thoughtful, and truthful it is, even as it pushes into genuinely seamy aspects of onscreen sexuality. Obnoxious he may be, but von Trier knows how to burrow into our ids.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the heroine of “Nymph()maniac” and the director’s psychic stand-in, is all id — a slave to her carnal urges. When first encountered, she’s lying beaten in an alleyway after some unspecified abuse. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a kindly and cerebral stranger, takes her in, brews her tea, and prompts her to tell her story; he reserves judgment with an open-mindedness that’s either superhuman or deranged. The tale, unfolding in chapters, takes form as the Diary of a Young Sex Addict, with the teenage Joe played by newcomer Stacy Martin.
Joe is convinced she’s a terrible person, and even a casual observer might agree. After coldly losing her virginity at 16 to the nearest boy — he owns a moped, has pretty hands, and is played by Shia LaBeouf in a performance that may alter your opinion of him even as it confirms recent weirdnesses — the adolescent Joe embarks on tours of commuter trains with her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark). They’re competing to seduce as many men as possible, and the scene in which Joe coaxes a happily married guy (Clayton Nemrow) to, um, partake says darkly reductive things about women’s power and men’s helplessness. (By the way, should a similarly fearless woman director make an answer film to “Nymph()maniac”? Hell, yes.)
Martin has the gaunt, vapid stare of a supermodel, but there’s an actress in there somewhere, and as the movie progresses, Joe’s dilemma — the sex she gets so easily, the love that confuses her so much — starts breaking out on her face like a bruise. “Nymph()maniac” is about what happens when we listen only to our animal impulses, and it sees an equal amount of honesty and destruction. Humor, too: Seligman interrupts the commuter train anecdote with an extended disquisition on fly-fishing — Joe is both fisherman and lure, her conquests are trout — and von Trier illustrates the lecture with slide-show inserts of compleat anglers at work.
The film darkens, though. LaBeouf returns (and returns) as Joe’s first love, a preening junior executive named Jerôme, and whether he’s the same character or different characters with the same face is immaterial: We’re deep in Joe’s head by now. The movie drily acknowledges the logistical nightmare of having sex with 10 different men a day, even as it brushes up against profound human pain.
Two of the most powerful scenes in “Nymph()maniac” portray mortal experience at its most extreme. In the first, Joe’s father (Christian Slater) accepts his imminent death from cancer with Zen-like calm only to succumb to raging delirium. In the second, Uma Thurman plays the wife of one of Joe’s lovers, bringing her three young sons around to the girl’s apartment to look at the “whore-bed” and rail against the collapse of her marriage with a fury that turns increasingly savage. Both scenes push facile performers to the edge of their abilities; Thurman’s scene remains scalded in the memory.
How graphic is the movie? Very, without ever quite tipping into porn’s fascination with anatomy as plumbing. In any event, “Nymph()maniac” is ultimately about ideas and emotions, both of which kill porn dead, and von Trier’s exploration of how we punish ourselves with pleasure, and why, is more metaphysical than physical. It’s a turn-on, but not that way. OK, that way, too, but only on the surface.
An end credit informs us that “sex doubles” were used in some scenes, so I guess it’s a relief that no actual actors were harmed. How would it change our response if they had joined in? For that matter, how would “Nymph()maniac” play with a lead actress who wasn’t a lissome twig? Is the director exploding our hypocrisies or indulging his kinks, probing guilt or licentiousness or both? All issues to discuss after you’ve caught your breath and had a stiff drink.
Because von Trier is an artist of much talent and next to no restraint, there are moments in “Nymph()maniac” that prompt something close to awe, such as a split-screen climax illustrating the three kinds of men — safe, dangerous, loving — Joe needs to fill her soul. There are also moments that prompt unintended laughter, either because von Trier’s overreaching or we’re squirming. Both are valuable. The war this movie portrays, between lust and repression, pleasure and duty, self and other people, is one we all wage in different ways at different stages of our lives. The director just draws the outlines in extremis and fills the middle with details whose truths we both shrink from and recognize.
“Nymph()maniac: Vol. 1” ends with selected scenes from “Vol. 2,” available on demand this week. It looks, if anything, even grimmer. I’m afraid I can hardly wait.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.