[Note to readers: As of this writing, Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1 is open in limited theatrical release and available for streaming. Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2 will open theatrically on April 4, 2014, and is currently available for streaming. This review covers both parts.]
“The secret ingredient is love,” whispers B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), best girlfriend to the highly sex-driven Joe (Stacy Martin). B is serious. Joe knows it’s a joke. As they traipse through their late adolescence having as much as sex as possible with willing men, a project that’s part camaraderie and occasionally a contest for the young women, B eventually falls away from Joe when sentimentality enters the realm of their non-stop conquest agenda. And Joe’s fine with this. She’s got more men to hunt down and subdue.
Adult Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) narrates this story after she’s found lying unconscious and bleeding in an alley by meek, intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). He brings her home to his book-filled yet otherwise drab flat, gives her a cup of tea, puts her to bed to recover, then listens to her recount her development, from childhood to present injured state, as an unmediated "nymphomaniac." While she recounts the way sex has informed her philosophy, numbed her body, damaged her family, compensated her and pushed her past the diagnoses and interventions of outsiders, Seligman interrupts Joe to digress on analogous subjects like fly-fishing, musical theories of dissonance, Fibonacci numbers, the great East-West schism in the medieval Christian Church, weaponry, blasphemy and celibacy. He’s both the best and worst listener a compulsively sexual storyteller could ask for.
Joe’s men (Shia LaBeouf, Hugo Speer) come and go. A scorned wife (the monstrously wild Uma Thurman) crashes into it all for a quick minute to provide her three young sons with a good look at Joe’s “whoring bed." Joe’s beloved father (Christian Slater) teachers her about nature, the care of the soul and the pain of loss. A professional sadist (Jamie Bell) takes her to new levels of pain. She visits a sex addiction group that doesn’t exactly convince her to abandon her high-intensity promiscuity. It’s a life of extreme agency if not one of traditional notions of physical pleasure.
Through it all, the O-faces are real but the genitalia is not. Well, not really Shia LaBeouf’s or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s, that is. Body doubles, porn actors, digital grafting, etceterablah, you can read all about that stuff online, elsewhere, if that’s what you care about. Because while non-porn actors having real sex on camera would have upped the notoriety stakes – it’s been done before, by the way, in films like Catherine Breillat’s Romance and Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy, among others – it wouldn’t have really been the point. This isn’t a sexy movie; it’s a film about sex, and those are almost always two different animals, very rarely meeting for a conjugal visit and forming a beast with two backs.
Whatever it is you’re looking for, whatever it is you think you’re going to find in this four-hour opus, probably isn’t what you’re going to get. Lars von Trier isn’t a filmmaker to consult for tidy resolutions or clear-cut thematic statements. His work involves the volcanically messy lives of female characters, all of whom suffer in some way or another, but none of whom can truly be reduced to type. He’s been called a misogynist, but it seems more likely that the real activity of his filmmaking is a sort of hacking at the foundation of received information about human behavior until it crumbles all around in a confusional heap. In that way, Nymphomaniac is a miniature sprawl, equally concerned with the co-existing beauty and ugliness and deception and truth and unanswerable questions contained in the mind and body of one maddening, unclassifiable character. If you want to try to sift through the post-coital rubble to make your own moral that’s your privilege, and maybe -- von Trier seems to suggest -- also your problem.