Movie review: Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” is what you expect (and not)

From the April 3, 2014 edition

When Lars von Trier announced his next film would be a sweeping, sexually explicit opus chronicling the life of a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, I thought, “Hmm. Well, that makes sense.”

Though an uncut version of “Nymphomaniac” boasts a 5 1/2-hour length — no word on the film’s girth — American audiences get a softer version, split into two parts, the first of which opens at the Gateway this weekend.

“Nymphomaniac” is the third film of von Trier’s loose “Depression Trilogy.” The first film, 2009’s “Antichrist,” I declared the “worst first-date movie ever.” The second film, “Melancholia,” I named my top movie of 2011.

The first thing you have to ask is whether you are down with the bleakness of a von Trier film. When we meet the film’s subject, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), she is discovered beaten and bruised in an alley by an old bachelor (Stellan Skarsgard). This may be a new time record for savaging a female lead, even for von Trier.

As Joe returns to the man’s apartment to nurse her wounds, she recounts her sexual history from adolescence. “I’ll have to tell you the whole story,” she says, “And it’ll be long.”

With the ambition of “Nymphomaniac,” it’s hard to judge its first half on its own merits. Joe’s stories are presented as an anthology (with Stacy Martin playing Young Joe for most of this film), and those stories are uneven, especially without seeing the full picture.

Joe’s self-loathing is nothing new for a von Trier character — it’s not even something new for a von Trier character played by three-timer Gainsbourg — but these depths have never so deeply been traced to their sources.

Von Trier has a long history with a perception of misogyny in his works, but Joe uses her sexuality to control men. The question is whether her sexuality controls her.

You expect the bleakness and the graphic sex (which is anything but titillating for those expecting porn). What you don’t expect are moments of, what’s that? Humor? A sequence with Uma Thurman as a cheated-on wife is a hilarious exercise in black comedy. With a little grief, because von Trier.

We’ll only have to wait a couple of weeks for the theatrical release of “Vol. 2,” and the whole piece will come into focus then. For now, it’s an uneven but challenging sexual symphony.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures