Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan SkarsgŒrd, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen
Written by: Lars von Trier
Directed by: Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 118
Date: 03/21/2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume I (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sex Head

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The notorious Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier usually punishes his female characters mercilessly, putting them through pure hell in film after film, sometimes killing them off completely. His victims thus far include Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), Selma Jezkova (Björk), Grace Margaret Mulligan (Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard), "She" (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Justine (Kirsten Dunst).

But in his new Nymphomaniac: Volume I -- Volume II is scheduled to be released in a few weeks -- he gives his poor tortured woman a kind of sanctuary, a place to rest and recuperate and tell her story. It could be the most humane film that von Trier has made in some time, which doesn't necessarily imply that it's by any means an easy or soft film.

Ms. Gainsbourg returns for the title role, Joe, a woman who is first seen beaten and bleeding, lying on a snowy street. A kindly older man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) spots her and brings her home, giving her hot tea. She begins to tell stories of her sexual exploits, describing herself as a "bad person" that simply wishes to fill up on sexual experiences.

She describes stories of her relationships with her mother (Connie Nielsen) and father (Christian Slater) -- a nature lover who says that trees have souls -- as well as her first lover, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf, with a fake English accent), who kicked off her obsession. The younger Joe is played in flashback by the lovely Stacy Martin.

In another story, she talks about a miscalculation with a married man, trying to get rid of him by telling him that she loves him "too much." He suddenly leaves his wife and shows up, followed by the wife (Uma Thurman) and her children, who wants the tykes to see their father's whore's home. It's arguably the film's funniest and most disturbing sequence at the same time; it will shock on a first viewing, and could elicit laughter on later viewings.

Rather than casually listening, or offering bland advice or psychological readings, Seligman likens Joe's tales to other things, fly-fishing, Bach's music, or the Fibonacci sequence. In response to his deconstruction of Bach's music, Joe describes the three lovers from her past that most perfectly make up her "musical movements."

In another long, brutal sequence, Joe visits her father's deathbed. During some moments, he's brave and eloquent, and in other moments, he panics and soils himself. Nurses come in to clean, while Joe seeks out sex with the first man she can find.

Von Trier has always been a filmmaker that, aside from his personal obsessions and torments, tries to test the audience. He's perhaps a bit too aware of how far he pushes things and likes to watch his viewers squirm. This time, though, he seems to be more involved in his story. (The button-pushing has happened in the film's publicity and its series of "orgasm" posters.) He's more sympathetic, or as sympathetic as von Trier is ever likely to get.

Of course, viewers will be curious as to how naked these famous actors get, but the truth is that for the graphic sex scenes von Trier used body doubles from the porn industry and digital magic.

Nymphomaniac: Volume I leaves off with a handful of scenes from the upcoming Nymphomaniac: Volume II, and it looks as if it could be darker and more disturbing. But for now, we can hope that with this lunatic sex show, von Trier has opened his heart, at least just a little bit.

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