Movie Review - 'Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1' - Chasing Sex, But Only On Her Terms Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin anchor Lars von Trier's four-hour inquiry into the nature of impulse and desire.
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'Nymphomaniac': Chasing Sex, But Only On Her Terms

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'Nymphomaniac': Chasing Sex, But Only On Her Terms

Review

Movie Reviews

'Nymphomaniac': Chasing Sex, But Only On Her Terms

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

"Nymphomaniac," the latest work by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier - director of "Breaking the Waves" and "Melancholia" - is filled with abundant amounts of explicit sex. It's being released in two parts. Volume 1 opens in limited release this week; Volume 2 on April 4rth. But both can currently be seen on demand, on a number of cable systems. Our film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Lars von Trier's latest provocation is an episodic sexual epic called "Nymphomaniac," which comes in two, two-hour parts, or volumes, though it's basically one movie sliced in half. The thinking must have been who wants four hours of hard-core sex and philosophizing? And if you say, me, me! I suggest seeing both back to back. It's an art-house orgy.

Should you see it at all? I recommend it guardedly. It's dumb but in a bold, ambitious way movies aren't these days, especially with sex in the equation. And it's funny, sometimes intentionally. The protagonist is what the title says: a woman who craves constant sex. That's sex without love or emotional connection; sex to assert what she calls her power as a woman.

The story is told in flashbacks. In the prologue, a seeming good Samaritan named Seligman - played by Stellan Skarsgard - stumbles on a filthy, bloodied woman in a courtyard. Her name is Joe. She's played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and while he tends to her wounds in his bachelor flat, she tells him of her life.

Years earlier, Joe - played as a teen and younger woman by Stacy Martin - offers her virginity to Shia LaBeouf's rich boy Jerome, who accepts it indifferently while fixing a bike. After this momentous non-event, Joe cruises shamelessly. The older Joe tells Seligman about a key day in her teens: a sexual-conquest bet with a friend on a train. The prize: a bag of sweets.

Seligman, for his part, finds parallels with his old fishing book, "The Complete Angler."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NYMPHOMANIAC VOLUME 1")

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: (As Joe) The idea was a competition. We were to go on a train trip. He said there was no need for tickets. The one who had (BLEEP) the most men when we reached the destination would win the chocolate sweets.

(STEPPENWOLF SONG, "BORN TO BE WILD")

STELLAN SKARSGARD: (As Seligman) Can I interrupt here? What you were doing when you walked down that corridor - you were reading the river.

EDELSTEIN: It's hard to tell if Seligman's "reading the river" interjection is meant to be serious, or if von Trier is satirizing the tendency to over-intellectualize - Seligman's and his own. I think it's both. We laugh, but we're supposed to buy the parallel, too.

Von Trier makes the case, in film after film, that humans are totally controlled by forces biological and/or social. They have as much free will as fish. I find that viewpoint - along with most of von Trier's movies - untenable. But I have to admit that in the sexual arena, he has a case - at least, regarding males. One of "Nymphomaniac's" best scenes is on that train, when Joe throws herself at a man who turns out to be saving his sperm for a wife who desperately wants a child. He begs and cries that she leave him be. But of course, he succumbs.

The origins of Joe's compulsion are more complicated. Gainsbourg and Martin have matching long faces and lithe bodies, but it's hard to read anything in the younger Joe's expression beyond robotic determination to have sex - and later, when the older Joe forms an erotic relationship with a man who whips her, to be punished.

In one sequence, there's a parade of multiracial, multiethnic male sexual organs in close-up, followed by more of Seligman's comparisons. We get his musings on the Fibonacci sequence in math and later, the so-called cantus firmus at the core of Bach's polyphonic compositions.

In the days since seeing the film, I've pondered Seligman's comparisons between Joe's peculiar sexual urges and fishing, Bach and Fibonacci, and concluded there's not much to them. But they are entertaining. As the Sundance Kid would say to Butch Cassidy: You just keep thinkin', Lars. That's what you're good at.

There is one scene that rips the fabric of "Nymphomaniac," not because it breaks from von Trier's view of humanity but because he has written such a juicy character, you almost forget what movie you're watching. She's the wife of one of Joe's lovers, and played by Uma Thurman.

She busts into Joe's flat with her two little children in tow, and goes from elaborate mock politeness to withering denunciation. Thurman is gloriously exhibitionistic; it's as if "Kill Bill" had been re-imagined along the lines of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Who'd have thought this aging, punk, misanthropist Lars von Trier had so much blood in him?

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

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