Lars von Trier loves to shock, so we shouldn't really be surprised that his latest release is called "Nymphomaniac." To be more precise, because of its nearly four-hour running time, he's chopped it into two films marked "Volume I" and "Volume II." (Somewhere also lurks a 5 1/2 hour "Director's Cut.")
For those too young to remember, "nymphomaniac" (shortened to "nympho" in cruder contexts) used to pop up as the medical term for women who were judged "loose." The intent was usually derogatory, but not as consistently as were its siblings, "slut" and "tramp." The misogyny is obvious: such women were dismissed as undesirable or even worthless, while any male behaving the same way was celebrated as a "stud" or a "ladies' man." The usage may still be around, but the basic concept has been made significantly obsolete by cultural changes.
Still, the word carries a nasty ring to it, and von Trier knows it will grab our attention, much like the title "Antichrist," which he used for a 2009 movie that had precious little connection to Christ, pro- or anti-. Charlotte Gainsbourg, the female star of that film — as well as his infinitely superior 2011 "Melancholia" — returns here in the central role.
A good Samaritan named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a bruised and beaten young woman named Joe (Gainsbourg), lying in an alleyway. Despite her insistence that she's "a bad human being," Seligman takes her in and convinces her to tell him what led up to her sorry condition. She proceeds to narrate the flashback of her erotic life story, in which he oddly finds references to Fibonacci numbers and analogies to fly fishing, as laid out in Isaak Walton's 17th-century book "The Compleat Angler."
In "Volume I," Gainsbourg only appears in the Seligman scenes, and the role of her younger self is played by newcomer Stacy Martin. (It should be mentioned that there is not a ghost of a chance that Martin's face could somehow grow into Gainsbourg's, barring some major cosmetic surgery.) We see Joe's earliest sexual experiences, in which her natural shyness is overcome by the goading of her adventuresome best friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark).
In the first of five chapters, we see Joe losing her virginity and awkwardly seducing multiple men on a single train (B's idea). Chapter Two relates her frustrating encounters into her first great crush (Shia LaBeouf). In Chapter Three, she takes on several lovers. To her great dismay, one of them leaves his wife to move in with her. She has no interest in this, and, to her relief, the wife (Uma Thurman, in a brief and terrific performance) shows up with her children in tow and creates a scene that gives her an out.
Chapter Four is a depressing change of pace, mostly concerned with the illness and death of her beloved father (Christian Slater). And the final chapter, in which she describes how, in one group of lovers, each man fulfills one specific facet of her needs, ends with a sort of cliffhanger.
The title may make "Nymphomaniac" sound like a porn film, but, despite a fair amount of nudity, titillation is not its agenda. Its concerns are psychological and its tone often predominantly comic. It doesn't pretend that Joe represents all women or that her story is somehow typical. It's just Joe's story, and it's a consistently engaging one. We'll have to wait for Volume II — due in two weeks — to see how things progress, as Gainsbourg takes over the character.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).