In the first moments of Lars von Trier’s sprawling, explicit Nymph()maniac, Joe—played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, marking her third consecutive performance in a von Trier movie—is found bloodied and battered in a snowy back alley. She’s discovered by Seligman (von Trier veteran Stellan Skarsgård), a bookish man of around 60 who offers to call for assistance. She won’t have it, not when “a cup of tea, with milk” will do just fine. But why not involve the authorities?
“It’s my own fault,” she tells her helper, concluding that “I’m just a bad human being.” As she recuperates in the kind stranger’s bed during the two volumes’ four hours and eight chapters, we listen to the world-weary Joe recount her story, vivified in flashbacks featuring newcomer Stacy Martin as a young Joe. But upon deeper viewing, Joe’s erotic tale gradually reveals another portrait—one of von Trier himself, in a sly summation of the various stages of his career.
As she begins this multilayered story, Joe notices an angled hook hanging on Seligman’s wall. “It’s a fly,” he tells her in the first of many digressive interruptions he’ll make. An avid fisherman, Seligman informs her, “It’s called a Nymph. It’ll tie in elegantly with your discussion about nymphomania.”
Joe, warmed by the tea and amused by Seligman’s quirky curiosity, runs with it. “As quite a young nymph, it was imperative for me to get rid of my virginity.”
Enter Shia LaBeouf. Tabloid fodder for months now, as accusations of artistic plagiarism have mounted against him and his numerous apologies just revealed even more plagiaries, he finally claimed a desire to retreat from the public spotlight. At Nymph()maniac’s red-carpet premiere in Berlin, he wore a paper bag over his head; scrawled across it were the words “I am not famous anymore.”
Perhaps not—but he may attain infamy, since he doesn’t cover his head, or much of anything else, as Jerôme, the cad who deflowers the 15-year-old Joe, though a dubious disclaimer states that body doubles were employed. Jerôme reappears as the key figure throughout her tale, next as her employer (in a chapter recalling von Trier’s The Boss of It All) and again during a dinner that finds Joe storing silverware in a rather personal place, as a mortified server looks on. (The waiter is played by von Trier regular Udo Kier, who memorably appeared in Just Jaeckin’s The Story of O, a 1975 portrait of perversion that’s likely a template for some of this film.) It’s playful scenes like these that are in short supply during Nymph()maniac’s second half, as plotting begins to trump characterization.
But what strong characters there are in this ensemble. As good as both Gainsbourg and Martin are as Joe, Christian Slater makes an indelible mark as Joe’s accepting father, a doctor who understands her better than most. And then there’s Uma Thurman, who’s already seen one of her previous films cut into two volumes. The Kill Bill actress delivers one of this movie’s most visceral performances, appearing as the scorned wife of one of Joe’s countless, inconsequential lovers, a woman who carts her tow-headed young sons off to Joe’s apartment to observe “Daddy’s favorite place: the whoring bed!”
An even darker sequence set during the sixth chapter underlines the Danish jester’s true ambition. Joe has gone off to feed her carnal desires, leaving her toddler alone in their high-rise apartment. As the cherubic child climbs out of his crib, playfully beckoned by the falling snow outside, Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” swells on the soundtrack; a sense of dread deepens as Joe’s son dawdles toward the open window. More than an echo of the opening scene of Antichrist (Gainsbourg’s debut von Trier film), it’s a direct quotation.
Indeed, all of the filmmaker’s movies are accounted for here, either through visual callbacks or direct quotations, and there’s even a veiled acknowledgement of the incident that got the artist banned from the Cannes Film Festival, where he joked that he was a Nazi. This allusion occurs during Joe’s recollection of an abortive tryst with African brothers she refers to as “negroes.” Seligman deems this politically incorrect, and she bristles. “We elevate those who say right, but mean wrong, and mock those who say wrong, but mean right.”
In this meta mode, von Trier even manages to touch upon the role of the movie critic, embodied by Seligman and his digressions. As the middle-aged bachelor continually draws story-stopping parallels to fishing, religion and intellectual pursuits like art and music, his bloviating ultimately does little to enlighten us about Joe, while clearly communicating the filmmaker’s feelings toward his critics. And when von Trier reveals Seligman to be a lonely, sexless virgin… well, if I can dish it, I’d better be able to take it from an artist I respect.
And as Joe says to Seligman: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”
Nymph()maniac: Volume I
Nymph()maniac: Volume II
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Connie Nielsen, Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr and Mia Goth. Screenplay by Lars von Trier. Directed by Lars von Trier. At Kendall Square.