Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has made a career of pushing boundaries on screen and provoking audiences, all while admittedly working out his personal issues (which run the gamut from chronic depression to debilitating phobias) for the world to see. His knack for trouble reached a new peak in 2011 when the Cannes Film Festival declared him persona non grata for ramblings to the press in which he claimed to "understand" Adolf Hitler and foolishly joked about being a Nazi. Von Trier has laid low since that time, refusing to make public statements of any kind even as rumors spread that his new film, Nymphomaniac, would require well-known actors to engage in real, nonsimulated, graphically filmed sex.
While those rumors are not entirely true, they might as well be: Nymphomaniac is intentionally ugly and disturbing — yet often riveting, a psychosexual mashup of biting satire and sincere pathos that takes many cues from the global porn industry. It's hard not to imagine the potentially extreme reactions of viewers who wander into a screening because they saw Uma Thurman or Christian Slater on the movie poster. Those daring enough to enter von Trier's sordid world by choice should probably take advantage of the rare chance to see both volumes of the film in close proximity at the upcoming filmOrama festival. The two volumes, totaling four hours, add up to a single film, and neither works well by itself. They will also get separate runs at the Prytania Theatre in the weeks ahead.
Nymphomaniac amounts to a four-hour therapy session for its main characters and presumably for writer/director von Trier. Erudite older bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds 40-ish woman Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten and bloody in an alley and takes her home. What follows is a single long conversation as Joe tells the troubling story of her lifelong nymphomania, and Seligman cites examples from history, literature and religion to illuminate her struggles. Both sides are depicted vividly in flashback. The sex becomes more graphic as Joe gets older, which allows von Trier to (barely) avoid legal trouble. He uses some prosthetics early on. But most of these scenes were shot twice — once with partially clothed actors including Gainsbourg and Shia LaBeouf and again with professional porn actors carefully mimicking their movements, then combined digitally to pioneer the use of half-body doubles on film.
What's most shocking about Nymphomaniac may be that all that graphic sex is not very erotic at all. It's made clear that Joe uses sex to nullify all the emotions she's not equipped to handle. Yet she clings to her self-described status as a nymphomaniac — one who's devoted exclusively to lust and pleasure at the expense of all else, including the lives of others — and believes her state to be superior to that of mere sex addicts, whom she sees as mired in neurotic need. Von Trier manages to keep Joe's story interesting by leaving plenty of room for us to make up our minds about what it all means. But he's also poking fun at each of us, first by turning moviegoers into voyeurs and second by pushing his satire on the human condition to the point of absurdity. Von Trier has a bone to pick with the world. It isn't pretty, but that may well be the point. — KEN KORMAN