Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier understands the art and craft of making movies, the power the form is capable of combined with the skill and means to achieve it, about as well as anyone working in the world today.
He also seems to believe in cinema as an apparatus for the creation of bad feelings, a means for exploring the bleakest of human emotions and the darkest corners of our souls. Lucky us?
Even the title of his latest film, “Nymphomaniac: Volume 1,” seems some odd combo of put-on and provocation. The film explores one woman’s life through a recounting of her sexual history, and although it is more graphic than recent depictions of bra-in-bed lovemaking, it’s really not as extreme as it might be. In typical Von Trier fashion, he sets audiences up to expect far worse — to the extent one finds graphic sex scenes “bad” — than what he actually gives them.
There are certainly adult movie moments, with porn actors used as sex-scene doubles and a humping thrust here and an explicit dribble there. Yet a series of photographs of penises, some accompanied by numbered post-it notes, seems more clinical than sexual. Anyone watching the movie for prurient titillation, the joke is on you.
Von Trier achieved true greatness with “Melancholia,” a bold extrapolation of depression into a depiction of the end of the world — emotions as apocalypse. The “Nymphomaniac” project is being released in two parts (Vol. 2 comes to theaters April 4) and is more diffuse and less directly impactful. Instead it provides, perhaps like the experiences of love and sex, a shifting variety of insights, emotions, unexpected lightness and moments of visceral shock.
The film opens with a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) being discovered in a beaten-up heap in an alleyway by a man (Stellan Skarsgård) who takes her in. She tells him her story of life as a sex addict — Stacy Martin plays the young Joe — and he counters with examples of fly fishing, mathematics and music that seem to him parallel and applicable to her experiences.
Von Trier has of late placed himself under a media silence, and so the impish, perverse humor he formerly reserved for the press has now been injected more forcefully into his work; “Nymphomaniac” certainly plays better as a wry comedy of manners than it does as a sex film. One of the film’s best sections features Uma Thurman as a spurned wife who arrives with her young sons in tow to confront her cheating husband, while Joe is played as deadpan farce, walking a razor line between laughter and heartbreak.
Shia LaBeouf, who made headlines with his own odd behavior while supporting the film at the Berlin International Film Festival — recall that notorious paper-bag helmet — is rather good, despite a wobbly trans-European accent. He performs his role as the man who first takes Joe’s virginity and then reappears in her life some time later as if he were auditioning for the male lead in “50 Shades of Grey,” with a sleazoid grace described in the film as “careless elegance.”
Martin, in her first major screen role, has a passive blankness that plays in distinction to the quiet self-possession of Gainsbourg’s screen presence. The film’s back-and-forth structure has the feeling of a novel, and even as Martin has more screentime, the story is very much steered by Gainsbourg as Von Trier repeatedly cuts to the counterpoint of her bruised face after depicting young Joe’s sexual exploits. Von Trier knowingly flirts with the retrograde archetype of the fallen woman, but it is the steel-centered softness of Gainsbourg — in her third outing with the director — that helps make Joe a more complicated, and complicating, character, one not given to easy understanding.
With “Vol. 2" arriving in theaters shortly — it is already on video on demand, as is the first film — there is something by definition incomplete about “Nymphomaniac: Volume 1.” Yet the film builds to a finale that works as a cliffhanger, summation and even punchline all its own. No good deed goes unpunished, no moment of joy or abandon left unsoiled. Because that’s our Lars.
‘Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1'
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theater, West Los Angeles