A select number of eager moviegoers were treated to an unexpected surprise here at the Sundance Film Festival. Offered a chance to attend a secret screening, nobody seemed to have a clue what the movie would actually be, or why these people were chosen to attend. Rumors flew around wildly all day, with a colleague and I speculating it would be from a director closely associated with the festival. Maybe Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel? An early cut of Kevin Smith's Tusk? Turns out we were way off, as the film was actually Lars von Trier's anticipated sexual epic, Nymphomaniac, and after the shock washed over the crowd it was followed by a round of cheers.
Although the film hasn't exactly been shrouded in secrecy, nobody quite new what to expect from the controversial director, who has frequently pushed boundaries on subjects more benign than insatiable sexual desire. So what would he do with a taboo subject such as this? What levels of sexual deviancy would we be treated to? And how many times will we be subjected to Shia LaBeauf in the buff? Turns out Nymphomaniac, at least in this first chapter, is probably the director's most accessible film.
That's not to say it isn't graphic, because it most certainly is and some will undoubtedly take offense to some of that. But those folks probably aren't coming to see a movie titled Nymphomaniac, anyway. Blaring thrash metal music against a serene, snowy backdrop begins the tale of Joe, played with incredible angst by von Trier's muse, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Found beaten and bruised in an alley by the kindly and eccentric Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), she's taken back to his simple home to convalesce, only to repeatedly insist how unworthy she is of his help. To prove just how terrible a person she is, Joe regales him with stories of her sexual adventures, beginning by telling him "I discovered my cunt at two years old". Won't get dialogue like that from a Scorsese flick.
The first volume is broken down into four chapters, with the first titled "The Compleat Angler", and for very good reason. The asexual, intellectual Seligman repeatedly interrupts Joe's stories of sexual conquest with banal comparisons to his favorite pasttime: fly fishing. While these start off as very funny for showing how square Seligman is, the joke grows old quickly and his detailed explanations a drag on a pace best described as deliberate. In solemn tone Joe continues her story of early sexual awakening, beginning as a child by splashing naked on the bathroom floor; then in gym class during the rope climb. Reaching her teenage years (then played by Stacy Martin, a ringer for Gainsbourg) when sexual experimentation normally begins, she meets strong-handed drifter Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) who takes her virginity with eight thrusts, counted in big bold numbers displayed across the screen.
From then on Joe is a sexual force, and with her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) begin a club with a rule never to sleep with a man more than once. A competition develops between them to have sex with as many men as possible, highlighted by a train ride in which they seduce and nail nearly a dozen men apiece. Flashbacks to Joe's upbringing with her sensitive father (Christian Slater) and distant mother (Connie Nielsen) establish her as someone who has always been aware of herself and her effect on men. But what you don't find is any hint of enjoyment in her sexual deeds. For her it's a primal calling, the lust isn't for erotic pleasure but for the power she can hold over others. There's no real value in sex for her, and love rarely enters the equation: "Love is just lust with jealousy added" seems to be her personal philosophy, at least until Jerome unexpectedly re-enters the picture (he seems to pop up randomly) and she begins to feel stirrings of something more.
This being a von Trier film, the humor is often tinged with a touch of madness. He often finds humor in the physical form, in particular male genitalia, such as in a montage of the hundreds of penises Joe has experienced. She makes mention of screwing 10 men a day at her peak, shuttling them in and out of her home like it was Union Station. When one of her conquests turns out to be married, he leaves his wife (Uma Thurman) only to have her show up at Joe's house with their kids to lay the greatest guilt trip in the history of cinema. There's mention of a "whoring bed", another phrase you'll only find in a von Trier movie. There's a playfulness to the high-minded conversations between Joe and Seligman, and one can almost sense the director's devilish grin with every cheesy sex metaphor he conjures up.
Much has been made about the amount of hardcore sex, but minus a couple of genitalia shots it's pretty tame and totally simulated. A scene where teenaged Joe performs oral sex comes (no pun intended) to an oozing climax, but otherwise there's little here that should make anyone too uncomfortable. With her hushed voice and hard features, Gainsbourg always makes for the perfect tortured soul, and captures Joe's conflicted mental state. Skarsgard, who has shown his comic chops many times before in other directors' films, gets the bulk of the laughs through Seligman's arm-chair psychology. Martin has the largest role by far, and she has a chilly air about her that matches Gainsbourg's. The biggest distraction is LaBeouf, whose parts unknown accent is marginally less laughable than his supposed manliness. Really?
Von Trier never wanted his 5 1/2 hour sexual opus to be split in two parts, and it's made clear from the abrupt, oddly-placed ending that it never should have been. Nymphomaniac isn't just a chance for von Trier to hit all of the politically incorrect G-spots, it's a real film with a fully-realized female protagonist who has lived a life most people will never understand. Joe is a fascinating, tragic figure and her story is only just beginning.