CINEMA: Satyricon


NYMPHOMANIAC VOLUME I & II (2014, dir. by Lars Von Trier, 241 minutes)

DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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 hardcore 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 mostly aren’t these days, especially when there’s 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 (Stellan Skarsgård) stumbles upon 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 newcomer 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. “The idea was a competition,” she tells him. “We were to go on a train trip. He said there was no need for tickets. The one who had f- – – -d the most men when we reached the destination would win the chocolate sweets.” Seligman, for his part, finds parallels with his old fishing book, The Complete Angler. “Can I interrupt here?” he asks. Then, explaining: “What you were doing when you walked down that corridor — you were reading the river.” It’s hard to tell if Seligman’s 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 eventually succumbs. MORE

DAVID DENBY: In a blasphemous scene in Volume I, Joe and her high-school friends chant, “Mea vulva, mea maxima vulva” (words that they have written on a wall). When she was a teen-ager, Joe tells Seligman, she wanted to destroy the consumerist enshrinement of “love,” and we see her and a friend smashing the window of a store selling valentine trinkets. In Volume II, von Trier extends the notion of ungovernable female desire as social rebellion; he even morphs into a nineteen-seventies kind of radical feminist. Joe, sacrificing everything to sexual adventure, walks out on Jerôme and their little boy, and at that point she’s wrecking the family, tearing at the basis of society. Sitting with Seligman years later, she speaks of regret and guilt, and he demurs, saying that if she were a man her behavior wouldn’t cause more than a ripple of interest. It’s only as a woman that she’s a revolutionary.[…]

Von Trier links his hungry woman to philosophical ideas, mathematics, digressions of all sorts. Sex, it turns out, is meaningless without interpretation. The character has only one way of experiencing her life; the director has many ways of telling it. He gives us a catalogue of male members belonging to Joe’s lovers, and, in medical-textbook mode, drawings and photographs of female genitalia. However profane, “Nymphomaniac” is a modern variant of illustrated seventeenth-century books of miscellaneous erudition, like “Angler” or Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” and of such eighteenth-century libertine texts as the Marquis d’Argens’s “Thérèse Philosophe”—a volume in which the sexual “education” of the heroine gets interrupted by discourses on the truth of philosophical materialism and the falsity of religion. But, though the movie is marvellously intriguing when it’s bookish and artificial, it becomes weak when it attempts sincerity. The repeated scene of Joe walking in the woods with her adored father (Christian Slater) is poetic in a flossy, boring way. Uma Thurman, playing the wife of a man sleeping with Joe, shows up with her three young sons at Joe’s apartment and rages magnificently, but she seems to be in a different movie—one in which real people have real feelings. This is a work of pornography, in which fantasy, and the contemplation of it, is the only thing that’s real. Like most porn, even art porn, “Nymphomaniac” falls apart at the end. Von Trier even seems to be pranking the audience. But the director has at last created a genuine scandal—a provocation worth talking about.  MORE

There is a good first five minutes and (no joke) a haunting narrative climax. But in between, there’s pretension, anti-erotic couplings and, in a scene that made the Internet nuts, LaBeouf’s face digitally melded with a stand-in’s le beef . No wonder the actor wore a bag over his head at a recent premiere of this movie. MORE

SLATE: Occasionally, real dramatic scenes will spring from the loamy soil of von Trier’s free-wandering fantasy. But they’re isolated sketches, little one-act plays in the theater of degradation. MORE

BOSTON GLOBE: Seems calculated to shock, but what’s most disquieting about Nymph()maniac is how funny, tender, thoughtful, and truthful it is, even as it pushes into genuinely seamy aspects of onscreen sexuality. Obnoxious he may be, but von Trier knows how to burrow into our ids. MORE