Midway through Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1, wizened old bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) interrupts jaded middle-aged sex-addict Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to ask her an important question about the story she's just told. "Why didn't you have sex with him?" he asks. She replies, "I'm not quite sure. I've shagged lots of idiots." This brief exchange effectively highlights the two characters' (and the movie's) dominant attitudes toward their primary conversation topic: clinical detachment, curiosity, and prurience offset by mordant humor.
Several other suggestive moods, images, and body parts rub up against each other throughout the first half of von Trier's potentially great new diptych. Much like Melancholia, his brilliantly barren 2011 film, von Trier's latest work is in some sense an exercise in audience frustration; whatever it is so far — and whatever Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2 (due for theatrical release in a few weeks) may add to or subtract from its predecessor — it is not what you thought it would be.
Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1's wordless, personless prelude is as full of foreboding as the opening paragraph of an Edgar Allan Poe story. After nearly two solid minutes of inner-city background noise (drainage, traffic) heard over a blank, black screen, the film's curiously sensuous and tactile initial images appear, further cultivating an atmosphere of dank, stagy menace. The first shot of the film reveals a man-made emptiness: a yellow fluorescent shop light hangs in the background, just above the center of the frame; two drain pipes jut out from opposite brick walls in the middle distance; from the left, a tin roof nudges its way into the foreground. Snowflakes catch the light and fall softly onto the invisible pavement. The camera then creeps around this bricked-out labyrinth as water trickles down a wall before pinging onto the metal lid of a trash can. In the first of the film's many sudden textual shifts, a bloody hand — Joe's — becomes visible.
Within this meticulously manufactured urban purgatory, a tentative connection is made. Returning to his apartment after a visit to the corner store, Seligman — who's dug out a mole-like existence somewhere in this maze — discovers Joe's body. She's barely conscious, and she looks like she's just endured a serious, beauty-erasing beating. After a brief and confrontational Q & A, Seligman takes Joe into his home, washes her clothes for her, offers her some tea, and sits down to listen to her story. The mushroom- and toast-colored room where they talk to each other is alive with decay; no one would be startled if Barton Fink popped in and asked for either a lump of sugar or a dose of poison.
As Joe begins to tell her life story, several tentative, half-cocked theses about men, manipulation, love, lust, rebellion, and religion begin to pile on top of and bleed into each other. Although Joe repeatedly states that her lifestyle has filled her with guilt and shame, Seligman refuses to judge her, preferring to analyze, justify, or contextualize every anecdote she tells. They talk and talk, but it's hard to tell whether they really hear each other; as Noel Murray of The Dissolve noted, at times Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 resembles a passive-aggressive conversation between an artist and a critic.
Mostly Joe talks about sex. For her, sex is a metaphor for everything, and everything is a metaphor for sex. Her verbally and visually frank sexual explorations begin early, but it should go without saying that anyone looking for some lavishly lit arthouse titillation will be instantly and repeatedly disappointed. Von Trier's camera may caress the leaves of ash trees and linger long on the faces of his weathered actors, but nearly every erotic encounter he depicts feels like it's taking place in a mausoleum or a morgue.
The enormously frustrating and hypocritical ratings double standard when it comes to film sexuality has been well documented; see Kirby Dick's 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated for more details. But there's no doubt that Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 got its "No One Under 18 Admitted; Go Find it on iTunes" rating in a fairly novel way. It's heavy on bad sex and unflattering, largely non-comedic male nudity, which includes an instructional dick-pic montage that looks like it could have been culled from a dozen medical textbooks.
It should also go without saying that sex isn't the real turn-on — or even the real subject — here. But the "real" subject remains hidden or squirreled away in layers of distraction and digression. Nymphomaniac is most adventurous and rewarding in its willingness to forge unlikely, ridiculous connections among and between the wealth of secondary subjects its two leads touch upon. At various points, sex is linked to fly fishing (a comparison that elicits a handful of witty superimpositions and associative edits), the Fibonacci Sequence, musical polyphony, and a bag of cheap chocolate candy.
Von Trier also breaks up the narrative through-line of his film by illustrating Joe and Seligman's various figures of speech. When Joe describes one former lover by saying "he was like a cat," von Trier cuts to a picture of a cat; when she refines her description to say he was more like a jaguar, a jaguar appears on screen, staring into the middle distance, fangs sunk into an unlucky ungulate's neck.
This unusual tactic, when set alongside von Trier's love of literary quotations and his habit of breaking his films into "chapters," marks him as a filmmaker keenly interested in blending, muddling, or erasing any distinctions between literary and cinematic storytelling. In interviews, von Trier has cited Nymphomaniac's numerous narrative asides, detours, and byways as examples of a new film genre he's calling "Digressionism" — a bit of shameless self-promotion that ignores movies like Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon, Spike Jonze's Adaptation, or Richard Linklater's Slacker, not to mention books like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.
Whatever his blind spots and egocentricities may be, getting worked up about a von Trier film is more invigorating than praising safer successes by lesser artists; any film that includes wild, career-peak performances from both Uma Thurman and Christian Slater while making Shia LeBeouf somewhat bearable is worth confronting. It will be very interesting indeed to see how Vol. 2 completes this unfinished portrait of a lady.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1
Opens Friday, April 11th
Studio on the Square