PARK CITY, Utah -- By this point in his career Lars von Trier has done so much that’s shocking that it’s stopped being shocking.
Maybe it’s that, or maybe just that, give or take an extended penis montage (of course), there actually isn't as much that’s sledgehammer-startling about “Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1,” the Danish director’s first of two installments in his sex-addict tale, which, for all its naked women in compromising positions, has an unexpectedly straightforward and surprisingly (if not always intentionally) comedic undertone.
Von Trier premiered his new movie at the Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday. Well, he didn't premiere it, because he doesn't fly and is somewhere in Europe thinking of the next action star whose image he can soft-core up now that he’s given it a whirl with Shia LaBeouf. But the film indeed played for the first time, part of a surprise screening orchestrated by the festival and one that generated a decent amount of laughter, some genuine and some awkward. Next month the full five-hour-plus director’s cut will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, with a two-part set of shortened cuts, each a little longer than two hours, opening March 21 and April 18 in the U.S. This is the first of those installments.
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Here’s how it goes down. A late 40's-ish woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found bloody in an alley by Stellan Skarsgard's professorial Seligman. After bringing her up to his apartment to convalesce, he begins listening to her erotic tale. From there we flash back to a child with a preternatural sexuality and, eventually, a voracious young woman played by Stacy Martin.
Martin’s Joe is fearless, practically nihilistic, about her conquests, their execution almost entirely joyless. She and a friend engage in wagers over who can sleep with the most men on a train before it reaches its destination (the bet is for a measly bag of candy, the one and only time a Von Trier movie will elicit thoughts of “Trading Places”). She eventually comes to have so many lovers on a given night that it practically requires a presidential scheduler just to keep them all straight.
Joe’s exploits, portrayed with a kind of heartless abandon in flashback but conveyed with guilty regret by Gainsbourg, are all meant to show a woman in crisis (she is prone to describing love as "the lowest form" of expression), though whether compulsive sex is the answer or more of the problem is, at least for a little while, part of the movie’s ambiguity. Less ambiguous are the cutbacks to Seligman, who is prone to finding comparisons between Joe's hard-core eroticism and everything from fly-fishing to a Bach sonata. (Upon hearing that her first encounter with a young LaBeouf involved three thrusts in one position and five in another, Skarsgard tells Gainsbourg, “Those are the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.” This is what made people laugh.)
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LaBeouf actually keeps his clothes on most of the time (the teaser to "Vol. 2" suggests otherwise) and is somewhat curiously seen by Joe as some kind of romantic ideal, though whether the heroine is also turned on by defiant tweets or an affinity for the story lines of obscure graphic novels remains an open question. Decidedly winning is Uma Thurman, who steals the show as a wife of one of Joe’s many conquests; she shows up with her kids to confront Joe, in a wickedly sarcastic turn that has her inviting the children to see “the whoring bed.”
Basically, Stacy Martin has lots of sex while Charlotte Gainsbourg tells a story and Stellan Skarsgard lectures us about science, which in one sense would be short-shrifting the film and in another describes pretty much all you need to know.
There are no shortage of story lines outside the movie. Is the graphic aspect a help or a hindrance at the box office (and, by extension, will the fact that a lot of this cut is not qualitatively more shocking than, say, the director’s “Antichrist” a help or a hindrance)?
Will Von Trier’s infamous Cannes appearance a few years ago in, which he thought it funny to call himself a Nazi, work against him? (There is a reference made by Seligman, whom Von Trier saw fit to identify as a Jew, to the character as “anti-Zionist” that is not even worth citing, so devoid is it of anything but a cry for attention.) And will the star attachments break the film out of an art house niche or just fill up some entertainment news magazine air-time with breathlessness about stars baring it all?
Seligman would invoke scientific principles to answer these questions. Joe might seek enlightenment elsewhere.