Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II may be the most sexually explicit coming-of-age movie ever seen outside an adult book store. But to call it pornography would minimize and tarnish its cinematic worth.
Like most of Lars von Trier’s films, it’s provocative, audacious, weird, challenging, and hypnotizing – sometimes all at once.
In the first scene, Stellan Skarsgård (from von Trier’s Breaking the Waves) concludes a grocery errand by finding a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, from the director’s last two films, Antichrist and Melancholia), laying beaten and bloody in a rain-slicked alley. He persists in helping her despite her plea for him to leave her alone (she blames herself, saying “I’m a bad human being”) and convinces her to talk about what may have led to this state.
Though Joe warns,"I don’t know where to start," she starts early. And Volume I consists of a series of flashbacks chronicling a colorful sexual biography. She admits to an early fascination with her genitalia, an exploratory period as a tween, and teenage years (where a young Joe is played by Stacy Martin) spent indulging in as much sexually precocity as time allows. In one extended scene, she and a female friend play out a contest of conquests on a train, with a bag of candy going to the one who copulates with the most men.
Among the well-known cast appearing in the first two decades of her life are Christian Slater as Joe’s kind-hearted father, Connie Nielsen as her disconnected “cold bitch” of a mother, and Shia LaBeouf as the young man who initially deflowers her and, later, her boss. If there’s a star turn in Volume I, it’s Uma Thurman, to whom film casting hasn’t been that generous of late. Here, she's volcanic, raging through a film-stealing performance as the spurned wife of one of Joe’s paramours who brings her three sons to Joe’s apartment to see where their parents' marriage was destroyed.
In Volume II, though, the movie goes off the rails a bit. With Joe now a mother (and being played for the remainder of the film by Gainsbourg), the story seems to make banal points rather heavy-handedly that most adults already know: that sexuality is complicated; that sex can be an antidote to emptiness; that sex acts like a drug - sometimes an opiate, sometimes an anesthetic. In short, sex is sex except when it's not.
Joe goes to some very dark places with new well-known actors, like Jamie Bell (all grown up from Billy Elliot) as a sadist who introduces ropes and a riding crop to Joe's repertoire; and Willem Dafoe, who supervises Joe's budding yet inexplicable career as a debt collector, where she wreaks vengeance in ways that look to be feeding sexual fetishes.
The easily offended definitely need to steer clear, as rarely are sex acts not depicted in throbbing, pulsating color. There's a dalliance with two African immigrants that borders on racial stereotyping - were it not suspicious that von Trier is purposefully satirizing everything we think we know about human sexuality. The movie is forthright in the way it acknowledges a range of sexuality seldom seen on movie screens but it's definitely rigged to unsettle and disturb.