Perhaps the most surprising thing about Lars von Trier is that he still can surprise us. There isn't a filmmaker alive more controversial, indifferent to giving offense or aggressively provocative. And yet, just when you're sure there can't possibly be one more artistic envelope for the Danish auteur to push, he pulls one out of his hat and pushes it brilliantly.
Let's make something clear right off the bat: I've watched the first half of his latest creation twice, and (a) I'm not even going to pretend to know what the point is. Read a dozen reviews and you'll get a dozen piercing, perceptive and completely contradictory interpretations. It just is. (b) I can't wait to watch it a third time.
And not because it's about sex. I'm not certain Nymphomaniac even is about sex, though there's certainly a lot of it. In Vol. 1, the writer-director devotes comparable time to disquisitions on fly fishing, Edgar Allan Poe, botanical science, Fibonacci numbers, religion, Bach and cake forks, among other fascinating and seemingly unrelated subjects.
The premise: A middle-aged bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers a brutalized woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) crumpled on a cobblestone street and brings her to his apartment. Her name is Joe. She doesn't want him to call an ambulance or the police. What she would like is a cup of tea.
Seligman tucks her in, dressed in a pair of his pajamas. But, instead of sleeping, Joe announces she's "a bad person" who deserved what was done to her and proceeds to recount episodes from her life, Scheherazade-style, to prove it. These stories track her virtually lifelong obsession with meaningless sex and "rebellion against love-fixated society." Model-turned-actress Stacy Martin plays her in her youth.
Helplessly addicted to "the sensation," and high on the control her sexuality allows her to exert over men, young Joe orchestrates the loss of her virginity at 15 to — of all people — a mechanic played by Shia LaBeouf (not half bad). She proceeds to a lifestyle organized around carnal encounters, juggling "up to 10 daily sexual satisfactions" through her twenties. The film is frequently hilarious. You'll be shocked, for example, to learn how many parallels there are between predatory lust and the sport of angling, an observation Skarsgård's unflappable character continually interrupts his guest to make.
Since Nymphomaniac follows on the heels of von Trier's Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011), it's a given that it also hits dark and tragic notes. Speaking of unexpectedly savvy casting: Christian Slater absolutely stuns in the role of Joe's devoted father, a doctor whose descent into illness and dementia is beyond wrenching.
As a wife betrayed by one of Joe's conquests, Uma Thurman has a cameo of such uncontained force it could register on the Richter scale. "Let's go see the whoring bed!" she tells her three young boys after barging into Joe's place in the middle of her husband's appointed slot. Pulp Fiction will have its 20th anniversary next month, and Thurman lets the years show here, lending the discarded woman's rage a jolting authenticity. Leaving, she screams with a fury past words — guttural, animal, unforgettable. So is the scene itself, along with much of von Trier's mesmerizing new masterwork.
In my view, the picture's sex and nudity — while unprecedented outside adult entertainment — have relatively little to do with its undeniable power. (Fun fact: Computer technology was used to attach the bottom half of porn stars to the top half of the actors — without doubt the most special effect ever!) No, I don't believe undressed movie stars could yield such strong effects. More like naked emotion.
OK, and cake forks.