Lars von Trier’s latest art-house provocation, Nymphomaniac: Volume I, is a dirty movie that isn’t nearly as scandalous as it thinks it is. In fact, it’s both exhausting and laughable in its eagerness to shock. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that Volume II comes out next month.
The opening chapter begins with the brutal sight of a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying bruised and bloodied in an alley, where she’s rescued by Seligman, a bookish bachelor played by Stellan Skarsgard. He takes her to his apartment to nurse her back to consciousness. When Joe comes to, she launches into the tale of how she arrived at her sad state, explicitly recounting her sexual history and quest for erotic liberation, or oblivion, or both. In a flashback to her carnal awakening (the teen Joe is played by French model Stacy Martin), we see her hook up with strangers on a train, among other places. Little is left to the imagination. As Joe numbly tells her story, she clearly wants to get a reaction out of her confessor (”I’m just a bad human being,” she says fatalistically). But he doesn’t judge her. Instead, he draws loopy connections between her exploits and fly-fishing, Bach, and Fibonacci number sequences, at which point my pretentiousness meter short-circuited. Shia LaBeouf pops up with a dodgy British accent as Joe’s first love, and Uma Thurman is hysterically shrill as a cuckolded wife. But really, the star of the film is von Trier’s own messy private demons, which he’s decided to grapple with publicly instead of in a shrink’s office. It’s a shame, because he’s capable of making great films, like 1996’s Breaking the Waves. But now it’s starting to feel like he’s become a sad cinematic oxymoron: a talented hack. D