Numerology, theology, music theory and fly fishing are a few of the weighty themes resounding through “Nymphomaniac, Volume I.” There’s carnality as well, along with warnings about the difference between desire and pleasure.
But the balance of mind to body is not what the title leads us to expect. Master of controversy Lars von Trier has baited his hook with the promise of lewd spectacle, but he reels us in for a philosophical sermon.
The foundation of the film is a lengthy conversation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bergman film. Kindly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alley, semiconscious and apparently beaten. She refuses a trip to the hospital, so he offers her the hospitality of his book-lined apartment. Explaining how she came to this battered state, she gives the solitary, cautious man a guided tour through her libertine youth (coltish Stacy Martin plays teenage Joe in flashbacks).
Joe discovered her body’s capacity for pleasure in childhood, and pursued it until it caught her. “I’m a bad human being,” she says, using her “power as a woman … without regard for others,” while seducing as many men as possible. Uma Thurman has a thunder-and-lightning cameo as the discarded, venom-spitting wife of one of Joe’s many conquests. The term “lover” doesn’t seem apt; they’re 50 shades of prey.
Infinitely patient and nonjudgmental, Seligman interprets her behavior through his cerebral frame of reference, connecting Joe’s wanton adventures to the prime numbers of a Fibonacci sequence and the three-part harmonies of J.S. Bach’s “Chorale Prelude in F Minor.” (Guess what the “F” stands for.) There’s also industrial shock-rock from Rammstein, Germany’s malevolent answer to Metallica, and the Shostakovich waltz from Stanley Kubrick’s chilly-sexy “Eyes Wide Shut.” Using his music cues for comic effect reminds us that Von Trier intends us to laugh through the film’s more absurd episodes. So does casting Shia LaBeouf as Joe’s first partner. It’s not clear what city this story is set in, but LaBeouf’s mock-South African accent wouldn’t fit in anywhere.
The film offers any number of provocative insights into sexuality, likening men to energetic spawning river fish and women to the sensor-controlled automatic doors in supermarkets. If that kind of reductive imagery discomfits you, it’s working as intended. The ever confrontational Danish filmmaker is on his game here, mixing split screens, multiple timelines, and in-your-face editing to create a universe all his own. Hoping for a glimpse of genitals? He’ll give them to you in a montage of morgue-style closeups that make you wish you hadn’t wished that wish.
Longtime Von Trier collaborators Gainsbourg and Skarsgård are splendid. He’s an inexperienced, naive fellow, reeling with wonder at every new act in Joe’s carnal carnival. Taking cues from the books and images on view in his home, she just might be telling a tale designed to tantalize his imagination.
The mind/body dualism between Seligman and Joe suggests that they’ll have a hard time reconciling their viewpoints. They even argue over the significance of cake forks. We won’t know the film’s endgame until “Volume II” arrives in a couple of weeks. Until then, what lovely arguments we’ll have!