While Lars Von Trier has taken a press “vow of silence” after his unfortunate remarks about Nazis to a Cannes 2011 press conference for “Melancholia,” the very form of his newest film(s), “Nymphomaniac” is in itself a succession of formal provocations that speak loudly. And that’s not even getting to the content of the first installment, “Nymphomaniac Volume I” yet. (“Nymphomaniac Volume II” is released in Chicago theaters April 4.) “NI” debuted for Christmas in Trier’s Danish homeland, and debuted in the U.S. at an invited preview at Sundance. The Danish version, longer by twenty minutes or so and more sexually explicit, debuted internationally at the Berlin Film Festival; the American “NI” has been on video-on-demand for a few weeks, and “NII” will follow the same release pattern. At some point, the two films will be available in their longer, five-hour-or-so version, which, it’s been reported, Trier handed over to others at some point to trim even to that length. That’s a long preamble to indicate it’s not length that counts, however, but instead Trier’s earnest attempt to chronicle one fictional woman’s sexuality and feelings toward fathers, while being tended by another older man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who counters her stories with his own about fancies like fly-fishing, making analogy and metaphor, Scheherazade-style, of what’s inside her literally fevered mind. Both puzzle and black comedy, “Nymphomaniac” opens with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten and then abandoned in a dank alley as snow falls and Seligman’s middle-aged male figure scoops her up to the strains of a title song by Rammstein, elongated “Nym-pho-ma-ni-aK!” barks and all. It’s a bedtime story filled with bursts of sexual experimentation, then exhibitionism (from the younger Joe, played by Stacy Martin) and power games, largely with a ruffian who later becomes her boss at an office, played by a keeningly out-of-his-league Shia LaBeouf. “I was an addict out of lust, not out of need,” Joe says quietly. “For me, nymphomania was callousness.” Her patterns, she narrates, were “about having the right to be horny.” As Joe’s father, Christian Slater reaches for extremes of emotion, and arrives there, and in an extended tirade after being betrayed by her husband with Joe, Uma Thurman courses with vitriol. And Thurman magnificently pulls off the unlikely phrase “whoring bed” in front of their two sons to describe the spectacle they must witness to exploit in their future psychotherapy sessions. “Will it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?” Explicit? Yes. Erotic. No. But Martin and Gainsbourg are both gentle yet unyielding presences, and Skarsgård offers weary tenderness and many dashes of battiness. It’s an essay film, really, with very funny moments, unexpectedly giddy, inventive illustrations of matters like fly-fishing and the Fibonacci sequence, invocations of rugelach and cake forks, and in the end, an intelligence that may be bonkers, but an intriguing intelligence all the same. With Connie Nielsen, Udo Kier. 118m. (Ray Pride)
“Nymphomaniac” opens Friday, March 21 at Landmark Century and is available on video-on-demand.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.