This warning is going out with press materials about the new Lars von Trier film NYMPHOMANIAC, which is being released in two parts over the next few weeks, with part one opening in many cities this weekend. "Note: NYMPHOMANIAC contains graphic depictions of sexuality to a degree unprecedented in a mainstream feature film." The most obvious problem with this warning is that nothing Lars von Trier has ever had a hand in could every be considered "mainstream." But most importantly (and thankfully), as much as sex is an important part of the work, it's never the only thing this film has going for it in terms of watchability and artistry.
The film opens with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying on a wet, dark cobblestone street. She's bruised and battered, and when Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers her, she refuses to let him call her an ambulance or doctor. So he takes her back to his house, cleans her up and puts her to bed. When she awakes, they begin a fascinating conversation about her pure lack of any self worth, which has manifested itself since she was very young in the form of a great deal of impersonal sex with men she doesn't love and barely knows. Most of the film is narrated by Gainsbourg but shown in flashback with the younger version of Joe played by the pretty but removed Stacy Martin, who is put through the sexual ringer by her own design.
At various times in her erotic history, she has played a game with a friend to have sex with as many men on a train as she can in a single trip; vowed to only sleep with a man once, then move on, often times in the same night; and had multiple long-term partners at the same time scheduled back to back down to the minute. There are also moving moments with Joe and her parents—her caring, informative father (Christian Slater) and distant mother (Connie Nielsen). There's a strange return to her first love, a lowly young man named Jerome, played by Shia LaBeouf. Perhaps the most world-shattering moment in VOLUME I involves a married man leaving his wife for Joe, showing up at her doorstep with his bags, followed shortly by his hysterical wife (Uma Thurman) and their two kids. It's a brief but haunting and explosive sequence that reminds up that Thurman is capable of such great work.
Von Trier gets a lot of grief for being a pain in the ass interview and a mentally abusive director, but the work speaks for itself—BREAKING THE WAVES, DANCER IN THE DARK, "The Kingdom" miniseries, DOGVILLE, THE BOSS OF IT ALL, ANTICHRIST, his previous work, the masterful MELANCHOLIA. They are all exercises in pushing human emotion and the physical form to their limits, and the results are often startling and impossible to forget. NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I is certainly heading down that path as well, with Joe clealy still needing to make that jump from young woman to the broken form we meet at the film's opening who consistently puts herself down as a horrible person, but one can't help but wonder if she truly believes this about herself, or is this another type of seduction she's engaging in with her host?
Despite a few flashes of real sex that required porn star doubles and even special effects, as well as plentiful nudity, the amount of sexual activity in this first half at least is fairly limited, and the success of the film's emotional journey certainly doesn't depend upon it. There is something absolutely hypnotic about listening to the conversation between Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, as they debate and discuss the nature of sex, but also their own personal histories and philosophies that go well beyond acts of carnal knowledge. The true value and triumph of NYMPHOMANIAC won't be known until the second part is watched (I believe it's on VOD now), but VOLUME I is an achievement in atmosphere, acting and depth that is rarely seen in true mainstream film, but is commonplace in the films of Von Trier. So it's okay to show up for the sex as long as you stay for the deep probing of the mind as well.