A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
The first poster released for Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" had a Brady-Bunch structure, with images of all the main actors stacked on top of one another, each individual lost in the exact moment of sexual climax. The poster was eye-catching and funny, private and exhibitionistic at the same time. Sex may be "natural" and "good" (according to George Michael), but seeing sex onscreen (either actual or simulated) is often a game-changer. We all may do it, but how do you put it onscreen in a way that is representative of the mess/humor/actuality of it? How do you represent sex and also incorporate emotion? Human beings are often very silly about sex, especially when they get too philosophical about it. It's like getting philosophical about a sneeze. Unlike a sneeze, sex carries lifetimes of associations with it, and yet naked writhing bodies onscreen often flatten out into a general cliche representing a hazy idea of the act. The best part of Lars von Trier's fascinating, engaging and often didactic "Nymphomaniac" is that, despite the sometimes-grim tone and bleak color palate, it's an extremely funny film, playful, even. It's outrageous and provocative, intellectual and primal at sometimes the same time. It features of a lot of what looks like actual sex (although we are told in the end credits that the penetrative sex depicted was done by body doubles), and while it is obviously interested in sex, it is more interested in how we talk about sex, how we incorporate it into our identity (or don't). Similar to "Melancholia," von Trier's masterful examination of depression, and how it feels like an outside force working on those who suffer from it, "Nymphomaniac" (which will be released in multiple volumes) sees sex through the eyes of a damaged woman who has made it her mission in life to remove sex from our "love-fixated society". She says, flatly, "Love is blind. No, it's worse. It distorts something. It's something I never asked for."
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the androgynously named Joe, who, at the opening of Volume I, is discovered lying bruised and battered in a dark alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Seligman takes her in, tucks her in bed, and gives her tea. He is a complete stranger and he asks what happened. She warns him up front that it will not be a nice story, that she is a bad person. He assures her that nothing she tells him will shock him. He thinks she may be being too hard on herself. There's something almost unfinished about Joe, a flat affect, as she insists that her behavior has been beyond-the-pale. As the rain pours down, she tells him her story.
It's a blatant theatrical device, an artificial framing, and von Trier uses it unabashedly.The film is broken up into titled-sections, each with their own narrative thru-line and tone. Occasionally, we go back to the bedroom with Seligman and Joe, when he interrupts her to ask a question about what she just said, or he interrupts to go off on his own tangent of thought. He is not freaked out by what Joe tells him. On the contrary, he is delighted by it, and seems delighted by the opportunity to talk about all of these important matters in an in-depth spit-balling kind of way. Seligman is a big fly-fisher, and much of what Joe describes, her various tactics with men, her use of different kinds of "lures", reminds him of his favorite hobby.
Part of the delight in "Nymphomaniac" is its disinterest in being anything other than fully itself. That "self" may change on a moment-to-moment basis, which makes "Nymphomaniac" a dizzying experience. The film is sometimes stylized, other times totally realistic. Mathematical equations appear on the screen, counting out the sexual pumps from Joe's first lover. There are intricate diagrams of a parallel parking job, showing the swooping parabolae necessary to fit a certain car into a certain spot. A chalkboard lists questions all starting with the letter "W". There are long conversations about Edgar Allan Poe, Bach, and Fibonacci numbers. "Nymphomaniac" requires an audience to submit to these segues, to go with the flow, to hand over control.