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Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin (right) in Nymphomaniac: Volume I

Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin (right) in Nymphomaniac: Volume I

Rather than waste your time worrying over the relationship between Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and pornography, I will pass along a lesson from Harry Atkins, who taught phys ed at my high school in South Chicago many years ago.

It was Mr. Atkins who happened to be monitoring the study hall on the day I first brought my new Modern Library Ulysses to school. As any man of his responsibilities and training would have done, he took one look at the cover and immediately seized the book, along with the likely opportunity to chastise a wiseass kid and a chance to find a few minutes’ diversion. In silence, Mr. Atkins began thumbing through “Proteus,” “Wandering Rocks,” “Oxen of the Sun,” searching for the good bits. In no time at all the book was back in my hands, delivered with a scowl that told me I was an even worse putz than he’d figured, and the damned thing was literature.

The role of putz in Nymphomaniac is played by Stellan Skarsgard, appearing in the guise of a monastic bachelor who spies a bruised and battered woman lying unconscious in a dark alley and brings her up to his flat for tea, cake and a nice, long chat. Literature—chapter titles included—is provided by the woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who agrees, in exchange for a night’s safe haven, to tell her tale, explaining how she came to be left for dead and why she believes the punishment was merited. There are plenty of sexual encounters in her stories, and lots of bare body parts in the skits that von Trier stages around them, with effects that are by turns whimsical, hilarious, wrenching, aggravating and appalling. But pornographic? If Mr. Atkins went looking for that, he would first have to wade through a quasi-Joycean profusion of literary history, notes on Christian and pagan iconography, tips on fly fishing, speculations about the Bolshevik attitude toward specialized cake forks, botanical lore, elaborations on the Fibonacci numbers and instructions for composing three-part counterpoint. Nor could Mr. Atkins be mocked if he gave up before getting to the scenes of people in the grip of a convincing erotic pleasure. For all the humping and slurping in Nymphomaniac, there aren’t many of those. The principal stimulation you get from the movie comes less from sex than from the mind games played between Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, and between you and von Trier.

The arena for these contests is the sparsely furnished, dimly lit bedroom to which Skarsgard (or Seligman, as the character is called) has brought Gainsbourg (or Joe). The décor is scarcely more elaborate than the white lines on a soundstage floor that represented the houses in von Trier’s Dogville. This is the neutral space—almost aggressively neutral, you might think—in which Seligman gently insists on conducting a kind of psychoanalysis of the supine, bedded-down Joe, seeking to cure her of her ostensible self-hatred (“I’m just a bad human being”) by encouraging her to free-associate about her past.

Or, to look at it another way, the bedroom is the near-void into which Joe projects her fantasies, or lies, using as prompts the few ill-assorted objects that Seligman has admitted into his cell. The viewer understands pretty quickly that Nymphomaniac is on one level von Trier’s version of The Usual Suspects with Joe in the Kevin Spacey role, improvising a story that may serve her own obscure ends while keeping Seligman harmlessly occupied. For viewers who are overly credulous, von Trier even supplies moments when Seligman questions the likelihood of this or that incident in Joe’s yarn, leading her to retort that it’s up to him (and presumably the movie audience) to decide whether believing her stories makes them more interesting.

When the night and its recitations come to an end, will Joe turn out to be Keyser Soze, Scheherazade or just a doozy of a case study? Von Trier sets you up to wonder; and while you’re at it, you might also entertain a few doubts about Seligman. Is he really as mild and high-minded as he seems—he can’t even mention being a Jew without immediately warding off any suspicion that he might be a Zionist—or could he perhaps have slightly selfish motives for carrying home an attractive but temporarily helpless woman and laying her in his bed? There is certainly an element of seduction in the way he entices Joe to talk, just as there’s an element of doubt about the core premise of her account, which is that she’s a nymphomaniac. Maybe the word—introduced by Seligman, not Joe—is just another prompt for her improvisations. Maybe she makes sex central to her stories because she guesses that’s what he’s looking for from a female character—a desire that he supposedly shares with a great many moviegoers.

I have now been led to the verge of saying that Nymphomaniac is designed to make you question what you want from a movie. You bet it does; that’s why it’s being marketed as Nymphomaniac and not Ma nuit chez Seligman. But if I were to try to explain or justify the movie by saying that it “foregrounds the male gaze” or some such, I would lose the mind game, having been maneuvered by von Trier into an evasion much like the silly, pedantic lectures into which Seligman digresses every time Joe gets to the good bits. To avoid the trap, and own up to having watched several hours of something titled Nymphomaniac, I have to take his challenge personally and tell you what I discovered that I wanted from this experience and what I did not.

Generally speaking, I wanted the first evening-long film in Nymphomaniac (labeled Volume I) and would recommend it to anyone out for a good time. I did not want Volume II. More specifically, I wanted three long, remarkable episodes in Volume I, two of which ground the fantasy of boundless female sexual desire in mundane realities.

The first reality: scheduling. Reasonably supposing that an insatiable woman might have many lovers on call, von Trier imagines that Joe would have difficulty getting them in and out of her apartment smoothly. This idea leads him to dramatize the life of a nymphomaniac as farce, seen on a night when two inadvertently overlapping assignations are interrupted by the sudden intrusion of an abandoned wife. The latter is played by Uma Thurman in a protracted, virtuosic turn that lets her begin with mock Seligman-like gentility, escalate into devastatingly funny sarcasm and finish with an animal roar. The only fault I can find with this sequence is that it includes no actors who can hold their own against her—certainly not Stacy Martin, the reedy, lank-haired actress who plays the young Joe in most of Volume I’s flashbacks. At various times Martin proves she can be sly, mutable, extraordinarily game and a little troubling (with a spectral face that might put you in mind of a grown-up Wednesday Addams), but in the farce episode, all she can do is stand back and wait for Hurricane Uma to blow through.

Underlying the laughter of this episode is a darker but incontrovertible reality of sexual pleasure: our pursuit of it can lead us to hurt people. But the pursuit can also keep us alive, which is the theme of the next episode I wanted, in which Joe stays by the side of her beloved father (Christian Slater) as he’s dying in the hospital. No indignity is spared this kind, thoughtful man at the end of his life, from the loss of bowel control to the onset of delirium. Joe, who lives by the flesh and is seeing what the flesh becomes, faithfully sticks it out with him. As she does so, in a sequence that’s played for stakes that seem dreadfully real, von Trier suggests that an insistent sexual urge might be a source of guilt for a woman in this situation but also a sorely needed way to assert her will to go on—even if she has to satisfy that need with a stranger somewhere in the bowels of the hospital. Here is the life of a nymphomaniac as tragedy.

As for the life of a nymphomaniac as ecstasy, von Trier rises to the theme with an amazing stunt at the end of Volume I. He has Joe associate three of her lovers with the three voices of Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, to which Seligman has just introduced her, adding comparisons to different species of wildlife for good measure. Out of these links, von Trier builds a magisterial split-screen montage of images and sounds that are sacred and profane, found and invented—a polyphony of organ playing, organ fondling and natural wonder that lifts Nymphomaniac into erotic and cinematic heaven.

And then it’s cut short. Volume I is over. Time to pay for the pleasure with Volume II.

Distinct from Volume I in tone, pacing and the presence of Gainsbourg in most of the flashbacks as the mature Joe, Volume II is conceived as an exercise in exhaustion, dramatizing how things fall apart when the narrator runs out of prompts for her stories, the self-styled psychoanalyst and cultural guide loses his subject’s interest, and the habitually voracious woman no longer feels that sex is a thrill. Here again, von Trier grounds at least one of his scenarios in a commonly encountered situation, imagining how Joe’s libido would drain away if she were to settle into bourgeois life with a husband and small child. (It’s the life of the nymphomaniac as dreary domestic melodrama.) Mostly, though, Volume II is about the rechanneling of frustrated eros into violence against oneself and others—an idea so obvious as to suggest that von Trier’s hard-working muse has also been worn out.

He tries to jump-start the stalled movie with a couple of public pranks, of the sort that he’s staged since The Idiots, and a tryst between Joe and two African men that is too obvious a provocation to provoke much of anything, except impatience. This is all prelude, though, to the core of Volume II, which is devoted to Joe’s submission to torture at the hands of a sadist known as K (Jamie Bell). I can say, in von Trier’s defense, that even though he lingers over these sequences, he lacks the relish for them that you find, for example, in Michael Haneke. But if there’s no joy of invention in the way von Trier realizes these scenes, neither is there a motivating emotional force in them, or in the later sequences in which Joe lays claim to the whip hand, and to the man’s name she’s been bearing throughout the film. All you get out of these episodes is a sense of the writer-director’s determination to play out a schema about women and men, love and pain, power and degradation, that may be ironclad in its logic but is artistically wooden, at least compared with the continual bubbling up of surprise in Volume I.

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Maybe von Trier would insist that this is what I bargained for. No tumescence without detumescence; no fun in I without the consequences in II. But if this is a fair description of the way Nymphomaniac works, then I think von Trier ultimately maneuvers himself into a trap, retreating into the moralism that is Seligman’s dirty and much-denied secret. I freely confess to having been ravished by Volume I and don’t feel the least bit guilty about devoting a column to the matched set of films. The mere fact that they encourage so much thinking sets them far above the general run of movie product. But rather than yield to von Trier’s dialectic, I would advise others to do the wrong thing and break off with Volume I, when the games end. For those of us who don’t mind literature, they’re all good bits.

* * *

Attention, if not respect, must be paid to first-weekend box office totals of $54.6 million and $44 million, and so I pause to acknowledge the commercial success of Divergent and Noah. The first, based on a series of young-adult novels by Veronica Roth, was of most interest to me for converting the marvelously winning and candid Shailene Woodley of The Descendants into a standard-issue girl-power heroine, while turning my beloved Chicago architecture into a pile of ruins. Thanks so much. The latter, based on sketchy and mutually contradictory texts reputedly dictated by God Almighty, replaces the wonder, dread and mystery of the original with thuddingly obvious deployments of CGI and long, shouted speeches that tell you exactly what to think. Together, Divergent and Noah teach a lesson of their own: that stories about inspired outsiders who struggle against their corrupt societies can make a lot of money, if told so as to meet the existing society’s conventions. I think I’ll go look for some more nympho action.

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