Sex has prominently figured into the strange and often brilliant filmography of Danish director Lars von Trier, going back to 1996’s infamous, pre–Dogme 95 offering Breaking the Waves. But just as his films willfully deviate from clichés and language of the cinematic medium, he plots sexual activity and perversions in unsentimental, formula-busting ways that could sometimes seem misogynistic but actually indict the culture of misogyny. With a soon-to-be-infamous new one, provocatively but accurately named Nymphomaniac (in two separate volumes), von Trier ostensibly meets the pressing subject of sex head-on. Key word: ostensibly.
Yes, there will be explicit sex sprinkled throughout here. And yes, these films are another art-house-suitable display of uncoy, brazen sex scenes on the heels of last year’s Blue Is the Warmest Color. But from another perspective, von Trier reverses the old equation of using a shabby narrative to justify the sex scenes: the nakedly carnal snippets are served here as erotic — and sometimes anti-erotic — joy buzzers amid deeper existential, psychological, and sociocultural questions. In other words, audiences may come for the sex but be sneakily infected with details of fly-fishing, the genius and enlightened numerology of Bach’s organ music, the Fibonacci series, and many other notions foreign to the realm of porn. Leave it to von Trier, the great Danish trickster and cinematic rethinker.
Structurally, Nymphomania — Volume I of which is being released a week before the next “chapter,” to lure us into a serial cinema experience — follows the recollecting account of a confessed nymphomaniac named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a bedraggled and bloodied 50-year-old pulled out of an alley into the home of the kindly intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He’s an open ear and a later-thinking conversational sparring partner as she recounts her life back to adolescence (via the spindly fine actress playing her younger self, Stacy Martin). The memories stretch from a serial-casual-sex-on-a-train challenge with her teenage friend to a startling scene confronting the wife (Uma Thurman, rocking in her role) of a middle-aged man whom she has an affair with. Along the way, our self-empowered heroine/antiheroine circles around an actual love interest, despite that old contemporary-consciousness ailment contained in the cry: “I can’t feel anything.”
Nymphomaniac, as seen in Vol. I, anyway, is a fascinating and stylistically daring film in itself, and one that contains echoes of continuity with previous von Trier wonders, from the avant-theatrical stagings of Dogville through the haunting existential/cosmic angst of 2011’s Melancholia. Not surprisingly, Nymphomaniac finds the intellectually restless director addressing sex and the art of cinema in beguiling, dualistic ways — anything but head-on. See you next week.