After a two-year media blitz featuring one salacious blurb after another, the expectations going into Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" are understandably bloated. Just how explicit are the sex scenes? When are porn doubles used in the place of the actors? Did Shia LaBeouf take off his paper bag (and other items of clothing)? When a movie directed by an agitator who once said he understood Hitler generates months of controversy, you enter with more than a few ideas about what to anticipate.
Then you sit down and, following a few quiet moments of snowfall, the heavy-metal ferocity of Rammstein introduces the movie -- a clear juxtaposition with the desaturated aesthetic and furtive camerawork for which von Trier is known. The writer/director wants to be clear right away that this movie is not what you imagined. It's explicit but not raunchy, metaphorical but only somewhat overwrought, ridiculous but not unapproachable. Moreover, it's surprisingly amusing.
Split into two parts, with the second volume opening a month after the first (but available via on-demand services right now), "Nymphomaniac" stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe, the title sex addict whom Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds battered in an alleyway near his home. He plays the Good Samaritan, lending her a bed and an ear to grasp the extensive story of what led to her destitution. And so begins a tale of intense sexual appetite, during which Seligman reveals he's a virgin -- a contradiction that at first feels phony. Joe's story unfolds through flashbacks framed by her dialogue with Seligman, which allows the educated but inexperienced bachelor -- positioned in a stark, asylum-like apartment with nothing but a few religious images on the walls -- to employ literary and historical allusions that make Joe's life an endless loop of metaphors.
In the flashbacks, newcomer Stacy Martin portrays Joe as a teenager, imbuing both naiveté and sophisticated sliminess into the sex addict's burgeoning years. "If I ask you to take my virginity, would that be a problem?" she inquires when she meets Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) at age 15, years after flipping through a book in her childhood home and learning how to pronounce "clitoris." Transparent numbers appear on the screen, counting the few thrusts it takes until Joe and Jerome have accomplished their goal -- a tally that Seligman links to the Fibonacci sequence, part of the endless philosophizing shoved at us. Shortly thereafter, a friend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) challenges Joe to a contest in which they compete for the most sexual encounters on a single train ride; the winner receives a bag of candy. The loss of innocence onscreen is visceral: Joe tells multiple suitors they're her first orgasm, the words "fill all my holes" are repeated frequently, and eventually Joe reveals she's seeing as many as eight sexual partners in any given night.
But through the dark clouds of von Trierian prurience and highfalutin symbolism emerges something of a comedy, and that's why "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1" rises above the one-note media salvo that sometimes made it seem like hollow tripe. The insolvency of a woman who submits to as much self-destruction as Joe does is bookended with humor, preventing the movie from becoming gaudy. "Nymphomaniac" retains the meditative buffet of past von Trier installments like "Melancholia" and "Dogville," but it handles sex addiction with a surprisingly lucid approach by presenting some of the more ludicrous aspects of Joe's story using tongue-in-cheek dialogue. The film's best moment comes with Uma Thurman, portraying the erratic wife of a fling who wants to leave his family for Joe. She arrives at Joe's door with her three young boys and an embroidered pillow, informing the children she'll be showing them the "whoring bed" that led to their father's departure. "Boys, come here, this might be interesting," she calls out when Joe's next coital appointment arrives with flowers. Thurman is electric, and she exemplifies the movie's ability to shift seamlessly between comedy and tragedy. Without it, we'd be left with a pseudo-sophisticated porno.
Even though "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1" sometimes inches along at a dull pace, von Trier has crafted a sex drama that avoids tripping over itself in pretentiousness. The movie's ultimate themes aren't transparent until "Volume 2," which contributes to the opening half's buoyancy. LaBeouf's Cockney accent is hard to buy, but his character exemplifies von Trier's depiction of, in an interesting twist, men. The director often finds the label "misogynist" attached to his name in the media, but instead of an edict against female sexual empowerment, it's the blokes who act like fools in "Nymphomaniac." Joe's self-destruction is biological, and she's aware of her flaws -- some of the first words we hear from her include the label "bad person." But we continually see otherwise respectable men succumb to asinine advances, like a married fellow on the train who attempts to refuse Joe's teenage tryst because he and his wife want to get pregnant, yet gives in to a blow job anyway. Von Trier's slant shifts the movie's narrative. The idea of a woman gallivanting from one affair to the next and being labeled a whore is old news, according to "Nymphomaniac." Joe isn't less contemptible for the flippant take she applies to sexual destruction as a 20-something, but by putting the onus on the males who succumb, the statement on gender disparity and erotic penchants rings loudly, and the movie is stronger for it.
Von Trier wants a magnum opus in "Nymphomaniac." Whether a montage of penises and an overabundance of allegories contribute to that is questionable. Even if we don't get the grand showcase the director wants (the sluggish art-house quality precludes its mainstream appeal from being much more than titillation), the first portion of the drama is engrossing. But, because this is ultimately one coherent movie split into two halves, we can't judge "Volume 1" alone, and so I'll leave the grand finale of assessments until the second portion arrives in theaters and we decide just how unhinged this tale really is.