When news broke that Danish auteur Lars von Trier would follow up his apocalyptic Melancholia with a massive, two-part epic titled Nymphomaniac containing explicit sex scenes, many film pundits predicted a controversial and gut-wrenching experience. Leave it to Denmark's resident bad boy to throw even the most optimistic of them a curveball. Volume 1 is not only a poignant origin story about a self-professed sex-addict named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who recounts her tale after being found brutally beaten by a stranger; it also has a romantic air to it that can only be described as tender.
This compassion is not immediately apparent, though; it's earned over time as von Trier provides Joe with a surprisingly earnest forum for recollection. Erosion dominates the early shots of Volume 1, the camera panning and tilting down a nasty looking brick building full of pockmarks and divots, rainwater gliding through the architectural crevices to the urban alley below. There's a repugnancy to this theatrical-looking stage, calling to mind the grimier parts of von Trier's masterpiece, Dogville. It's here, in this hellish environment, that Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds Joe battered and bruised before asking her, back at his quaint apartment, to discuss the serpentine timeline that's led to their meeting.
Joe begins her confession with a self-hating proclamation: "I'm just a bad human being." It stands to reason that Seligman (and, by proxy, von Trier) will spend much of Nymphomaniac complicating this assertion. Volume 1 certainly does so, tracing Joe as a sexually curious child living under the roof of a domineering mother (Connie Nielson) and a nature-loving father (Christian Slater). There's nothing salacious about her progression, but something quite natural, even preordained. Seligman even interrupts Joe's narration with a string of fly-fishing metaphors, seemingly his own organic addiction that draws some oddly resonant parallels to her extreme sexuality.
Initially, von Trier seamlessly dips and dives between time periods before staying entrenched in the past when Joe (now played by Stacy Martin) reaches her teenage years. Experimentation and strategy come to define these sequences, the most ambitious of which takes place on a moving train and involves a sex game between Joe and a female friend competing to see who can sleep with the most men. On paper, this sounds like an opportune time for von Trier to punish his lead character (as he's done so many times before) with a mosaic of humiliating and/or abusive trysts. However, the filmmaker pays careful attention to the protean feel and one-sidedness of each sex act, never sensationalizing Joe's subjective point-of-view.
Her sexual experiences become more elaborate and rhythmic as she gets older; at one point, Joe admits to scheduling rendezvous with up to 10 men each night. What might've started as a rebellion against love has now become just another job of sorts. Martin's tenacious performance suggests that some excitement stems from juggling power and control over so many men, but Joe is a far more complex character than simply an adrenaline addict. The sex she experiences is both a collaboration and confrontation with gender and identity.
Take, for instance, Volume 1's most magnetic scene, which involves the invasion of Joe's apartment by the distraught wife (Uma Thurman) of one of her older lovers. As the woman hysterically guilt trips both Joe and her cheating husband, using their children as pawns, the film reveals not only its absurdist elements, but also an amazing sense of humor. Only in looking back at such a staggering moment can a person understand the nuances that stretch beyond the surface.
Volume 1—which opens Friday, March 21, at Hillcrest Cinemas—ends on a tenuous note, with Joe foreshadowing the violence and degradation that are sure to swoop into Volume 2 like an unflinching hurricane. Even if von Trier goes back to his old tricks in the second half, we'll always have this strangely beguiling origin of species that's smart enough to understand the elemental delirium that defines so many of our urges. Fault, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.