If the viewer could look into filmmaker Lars von Trier’s mind, chances are it would look almost exactly like his opus, “Nymphomaniac: Volume 1.” Every character struggles with an emptiness and the most damaged of them, the protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Melancholia”), think loveless sex will cure all their ills.
Over two volumes and a little over four hours, “Nymphomaniac” tells self-diagnosed nymphomaniac’s Joe’s story, from childhood to adulthood. After the kindly bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard, “The Avengers”) finds her bloody and beaten in an alleyway, he takes her back to his apartment and listens to her story.
Like the sex-hungry, self-hating Joe, “Nymphomaniac” looks like indulgent mess accentuated by changing color palettes. Joe’s hunt for willing men is equated to “reading the river” in fly fishing, and sex itself becomes as prevalent as nature, but is filmed like a clinical experiment. It’s disconnected.
But just like Joe, there’s sense in the chaos. One-third fairy tale and two-thirds parable, the movie revels in excess. Much has been said about the pornographic sex scenes. But they’re not titillating — they’re detached and sometimes alien.
That being said, this is not the movie to watch if you’re put off by extremely graphic sex, which sometimes feels like too much. At other points, it seems like von Trier is just putting as much onto the screen as possible. It can be overwhelming.
Like the sex scenes, the dialogue is mechanical. Every character speaks with the same surreally formalized diction, practicing the “say what you’re going to say, say it, say what you said” style of public speaking. It’s off-putting, but is delivered convincingly by the talented cast.
“Nymphomanic: Volume 1” is thankfully a far cry from von Trier’s hopelessly shallow “Melancholia.” It’s a chaotic, indulgent ride, and not everybody will have the wherewithal to stay on. But nowhere this year will you find a movie as ambitious. It’s a work of art in vulgar clothing, something to be entranced with and revolted by.