For Unadorned Carnal Knowledge

If you’re a little wary of Lars von Trier — never sure whether you’re going to take him seriously and get laughed at, or laugh at him and find you should’ve taken him seriously — you are hardly alone. His last film, Melancholia, was surprising for not offending or pushing buttons; instead, it left me crushed and dazed. 

I can’t say the same for Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, but I also couldn’t stop myself from watching both volumes, which are very much pieces of a whole. Throughout both, a battered and bloody Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) relates the story of her life in sex to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the older gent who finds her in an alley. He sets her up in his bed with a cup of tea and an eager ear; and she demurs briefly before diving into a tale that encompasses losing her virginity; competing with her best friend for the most conquests in one night; her father’s death; her ability to juggle eight or more lovers; and her eventual rediscovery of the man she first had sex with.  (Along the way, Uma Thurman turns up as a jilted wife in a scene both campy and brilliant.) 

About sex, Joe and von Trier are both matter-of-fact: Joe’s plain narration goes hand in hand with the white lighting and unremarkable rooms in which all the (cleverly edited) sex takes place. As Joe’s opposite, Seligman relates her physical tales to something he understands, like fly-fishing or polyphony. Their dialogue, rife with references, has an instructive formality; the paths it takes are as carefully laid out as an English garden. But to what end? 

The sense that Joe is full of shit hovers over Vol. I, which my date suspected of being “a porny Usual Suspects” — but I don’t think von Trier cares if you believe her or not. Nymphomaniac isn’t as much about female power as the dialogue occasionally suggests; it’s more about being misunderstood because of the things you choose (or are compelled) to pursue. Vol. I doesn’t stand alone, but if the parade of cocks doesn’t scare you away, you’ll be back for Vol. II — even if only to see what the hell happens.

Look for a review of Nymphomaniac: Vol. II in EW’s April 17 issue.