Nymph()maniac: Vol. I opens on images of water dripping off buildings before revealing Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lying crumpled and bruised, in the street. After such quiet opening moments, the movie’s soundtrack attacks with a startling blast of the German band Rammstein; their “Führe Mich” serves as the movie’s unofficial theme song. This is the welcome mat laid out by Lars von Trier, interested as ever in raw emotion and calculated provocation.
The most obviously provocative aspect of Nymph()maniac: Vol. I—now available on VOD and opening in select US theaters 21 March—is the frequency of its explicit sex scenes. According to the credits, body doubles were used for particularly graphic sequences that go far beyond the limits of traditional R-rated films from the American studio system (though no further than other European indies like Blue is the Warmest Color or 9 Songs). These sometimes sexy, sometimes discomforting moments don’t exactly conceal von Trier’s tendency to frustrate viewers, to hold his images at a slightly frosty remove.
In another turn on that tendency, he structures Nymph()maniac: Vol. I as conscious of its own storytelling. After the opening shots of Joe in the streets, a middle-aged man called Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) happens upon her. After refusing his offer to call the police, she agrees to let him bring her to his apartment so she can rest and recover. Eventually, they begin to talk about her past, which has been dominated by her sexual compulsions.
As she speaks, Seligman keeps a respectful physical distance, listening intently and sometimes offering potential metaphorical meanings for her exploits. To emphasize the clinical nature of the proceedings, the movie is divided into chapters in the style of recent Tarantino. So, when Joe talks about the time she (played as a teenager and young woman by Stacy Martin) competed with a friend over who could fuck the most men during a single train trip, Seligman relates it to fly-fishing techniques—and sure enough, von Trier intercuts visuals of Seligman’s crash course in fishing with Joe’s litany of conquests (the chapter’s title: “The Compleat Angler”). It would be a stretch to describe Nymph()maniac: Vol. I as playful, but the episodes in Joe’s life allow for more variation in tone than, say, the relentlessly tragic beauty of Melancholia.
There’s plenty of that, too, though, as in the fourth chapter, “Delirium”, which details the physical decline of Joe’s sensitive father (Christian Slater, of all people, well cast against type) in stark black and white. This section turns even more devastating as it is preceded by the third chapter, titled “Mrs. H.” Structured much like an awkward comedy sketch, it kicks off when one of Joe’s regular sex partners misinterprets her caginess about their relationship as a desire to make a new life with him. He leaves his wife and turns up at Joe’s apartment, followed closely by his wife (Uma Thurman), who shows their children around Joe’s flat with furious sarcasm.
Thurman’s rage, semi-comic as it is, breaks through the insistent von Trier affect; even with all of the dripping and kissing, sometimes Nymph()maniac: Vol. I turns downright dry with its delicate, even-handed dialogue. The movie’s approach to its storylines sometimes verges on arch, a little self-obsessively alienated. In Melancholia, our sense of alienation seems a product of the movie’s subject matter, clinical depression. Here it feels more like an affectation. Yet Nymph()maniac: Vol. I still takes bravura swings at ideas beyond Joe’s carnal desperation, like a split-screen sequence that once again imposes an area of Seligman’s interpretive expertise (in this case, music composition) onto Joe’s multi-partnered sex life, right up until the end, or rather, until the middle. As the title implies, Nymph()maniac: Vol. I is only half a film.
Von Trier’s full cut played last year in Denmark, at a running time of over five hours; for the US and some other countries, the film has been cut by an hour and cleaved into a pair of 120-minute volumes. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, the chapter structure allows for easy divisions of experience and response. This volume belongs more to Martin’s younger Joe, while Gainsbourg, who narrates this film opposite Skarsgård, will take the reins as an adult self for the second one, on VOD as of 20 March.
But as it turns out, the halving makes more sense technically than it does dramatically. Unlike Kill Bill Vol. 1, which had an action-movie climax to help it stand alone despite its cliffhanger ending, Nymph()maniac: Vol. I just ends, then cues up its Rammstein song and a montage of coming-soon moments from Vol. II over the end credits. In that sense, it ends as it begins, by chasing what might be our sincere involvement with another winking von Trier provocation. The movie seems to be going somewhere, the rest of Gainsbourg’s performance will probably be great, and von Trier may well pull off his bizarre mix of emotional intensity and clinical remove but… to be continued.