Review: Lars von Trier's sex epic 'Nymphomaniac'

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 two on, through the lens of her insatiable sex addiction.

"A very pleasurable and humorous story," is what he calls it — and I imagine that's what von Trier thinks of his film, too. The movie's real aphrodisiac is storytelling. Joe forms a chapter heading from something in the room (a painting, a book) where she sits in bed, sipping tea.

After each section, Seligman makes his observations, many of which lead to pseudo-intellectual conversation about the nature of sexuality, roping in highfalutin things like Bach's fugues and Fibonacci numbers. He doesn't judge, disputing her when she says she's "immoral" and "just a bad human being." He argues that she — prowling a train for men as a teenager— is as natural as a fly fisherman "reading the river" for fish. "If you have wings, why not fly?" he says.

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. In this way, the film isn't anything particularly sensational at all.

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, with a terrible British accent), who promptly and efficiently 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 gathers with other girls to combat "the love-fixated society" and chant "mea maxima vulva."

She takes no apparent pleasure from the sex. "For me, nymphomania was callousness," she says. 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. Thurman is exceptional in the hysterically grotesque scene.

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 (Jamie Bell, as far away from "Billy Elliot" as humanly possible). There are other escapades, too (including a humorous one with African brothers), but it's this chapter that sets the tone of pain and self-hatred of Volume II. Naturally, this is also where Willem Dafoe comes in.

Von Trier, whose "Antichrist" juxtaposed, in gorgeous black-and-white, the passionate lovemaking of parents while their son fatally falls from a snowy window, is drawn to the intersection of eroticism and tragedy. He's on a wild streak, having followed "Antichrist" with the beautifully depressive apocalypse of "Melancholia."

In "Nymphomaniac," von Trier — a showman and a show-off — restlessly splits the image, overlays numbers on the screen and makes self-conscious winks. Joe responds to one of Seligman's interjections: "This was one of your weakest digressions."

"Nymphomaniac" is his testament to the "strongest force in humanity," as sex is called in the film. Von Trier, like Joe, surely wants to drain lovemaking of its sentimentality. He's made a mad movie that's something like sleeping with a fascinating, insufferable crazy person. A one-night stand with "Nymphomaniac" is plenty.

"Nymphomaniac: Volume I and II," a Magnolia Pictures release, is unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America." It contains NC-17 levels of sex and nudity. Running time: Volume I is 117 minutes; Volume II is 123 minutes. Three stars out of four.