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Charlotte Gainsbourg, the sexually avid heroine of Nymphomaniac withe the chilly Jamie Bell.

Mongrel Media/Christian Geisnaes


Nymphomaniac: Volumes 1 and 2
Written and directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard
Classification: R

Volume 1: 3 stars
Volume 2: 2-1/2 stars

Nymphomania is not a real psychiatric or physical condition. It belongs in the cobwebbed corners of the linguistic antique shop, along with "sex maniac," or perhaps, "Negroes." The latter is a word that Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the sexually avid heroine of Lars von Trier's four-hour, two-part sex epic, uses to describe the two African men she picks up from a street corner to have sex with her. After a while, as the two naked men stand about arguing about something (there are no subtitles), with their semi-erect penises bobbing in front of them, Joe slips away. Joe tells this anecdote to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a professorial older man who found Joe lying beaten and unconscious in a crucified Christ pose in an alley and offered her tea and sympathy. He takes a moment to admonish her for her incorrect use of language and, unexpectedly for someone who seems to know nothing about anything except sex, she snaps back with a defence of political incorrectness: Every word removed from the language, she says sternly, is another brick removed from the wall of democracy. She also insists on calling herself a "nymphomaniac," when a group counsellor urges her to use the new acceptable word, "sex addict."

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Apart from this somewhat empty defence of the words nympho and Negroes, what is Lars von Trier on about with Nymphomaniac? The director has been talking about his planned hard-core film with name stars for a few years. The provocation was overshadowed in 2011, when he was expelled from the Cannes festival for making facetious comments expressing sympathy for Hitler.

At root is his familiar desire, or perhaps compulsion, to provoke. Von Trier might be considered the poster boy for a generation spoiled by freedom. Raised on a swinging atheistic sixties commune without rules, by his own account he's beset with personal anxieties and neurosis. In his films and career, he seems as compelled to create arbitrary rules as he is to rebel against them. Remember his Catholic period? The Dogme "vow of chastity," demanding stripped-down filmmaking? In 1996, his theatrical project The Exhibited had actors "directed" by the movements of ants. In the 2004 The Five Obstructions, Von Trier challenged director Jorgen Leth to remake his 1967 film The Perfect Human five times, each time with a different arbitrary obstacle.

Nymphomaniac, then, is best approached as the fruit of a fairly arbitrary challenge: A movie with real stars (besides Gainsbourg and Skarsgard it includes Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe and Shia LaBeouf) – and hard-core nudity, prosthetic genitals and porn-actor doubles. The stimulation offered here is more aesthetic and, occasionally, intellectual, than erotic. The narrative model – like his so-called Golden Heart trilogy (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark) – is deliberately old-fashioned. Nymphomaniac is an erotic picaresque, in the tradition of 18th-century novels Moll Flanders or Fanny Hill, with Joe lying in bed, bruised and contrite about being a "bad person" relating her stories, while Seligman relishes both enjoying the titillation and offering the moralizing commentary, on everything from analogies to fly-fishing, Bach fugues and Freudian theory.

While Nymphomaniac will be shown theatrically as two movies requiring separate tickets, for practical purposes it's one long movie (running a little over four hours). A disclaimer states that the director does not endorse this "abridged and censored" version of the film, though that seems more likely part of the come-on. Each "volume" consists of four titled chapters marking stages in Joe's journey.

In the first chapter, entitled The Compleat Angler, a young Joe (played by English actor Stacy Martin) loses her virginity to a Cockney motorcycle mechanic, a suitable mechanical lover named Jerome (LaBeouf). Later, she and her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) engage in a contest on a train to see who can have sex with the most men. The prize is a bag of candy. "What if it's nasty?" asks Joe. "Just think of the bag of sweeties," advises B. While the barely legal vamps play out their contest, the sex is still fairly discreet at this point, but Joe takes up her new pursuit of lust with enthusiasm and generally repudiates the cult of "love," which she describes as "just lust with jealousy added." Eventually she crosses paths with Jerome again, eventually marries and has a baby with him, but the after-effect is that she loses her ability to have orgasms and starts picking up men again. A montage of penises, reminiscent of a similar scene in Borat (though unlike in Borat, none talk) represents her assembly line of lovers.

While Martin, with her adolescent body, offers a reasonable approximation of Gainsbourg physically, she's more of a cipher than a rounded character. There's some attempt to give her a history with a cold mother and a beloved if insipid father (Christian Slater), but mostly Joe is an enigma in search of an orgasm. Easily the best scene of Nymphomaniac occurs in the first two hours, when Joe finds herself the other woman in a marriage breakup. Uma Thurman (who's superb) plays the cheated wife, who shows up at the apartment with children in tow. When von Trier is at his best, in movies from Breaking the Waves to Dogville and moments in films from The Idiots to Dancer in the Dark, is when he holds you suspended between the absurdity of the situation and the startling reality of the performances and the expressive hand-held camera work.

Volume 2 picks up the story with an older Joe, now played by Gainsbourg, with her watchful sad face showing the character's unsatisfied hunger. It seems more von Trier's script than any great social taboos that cause Joe to go into free fall in a world that becomes more kinky and sinister. In her search to get past her post-partum numbness, she seeks out a highly reserved S&M specialist (a chilly Jamie Bell), who allows her to come into his office and flays her behind with a strap. Joe, now feeling like an emotional outlaw, becomes a real one, working with a criminal debt-collector (Dafoe, Gainsbourg's co-star in von Trier's Antichrist). By now, Joe's sense of social relations are deeply twisted and she finds a teenaged protégé (Mia Goth) to serve as an assistant and companion in a warped relationship that leads Joe to the alley, and eventually Seligman's flat.

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The inconsistencies in Joe's character become more difficult to reconcile. On one hand, she seems endlessly contrite ("My pleasure was callousness") and describes her life as lonesome and shameful. Yet at other times, she's a proud rule-breaker, viewing herself not as a victim of compulsion, but an artistic pioneer: "Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I've always demanded more from the sunset."

Looking for logic or conventional artistic coherence in von Trier's work is a mistake – he's an emotional collage maker – but the overall feminist-positive message of Nymphomaniac would be more convincing if Joe were a little less narrow and a little less sad in her pursuit of pleasure. The point may be moot: Ultimately, Nymphomaniac seems less about a woman character than her creator. Joe, shameless or contrite, Seligman, moralistic and titillated, are both products of von Trier's turbulent psyche. His internal battles with freedom and restrictions, though not always pretty or wise, provide us with these uniquely troubled stories and images.

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