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.