Nymphomaniac: Volume I / Lars von Trier / 2014 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Visual metaphors; Dark humor; Theme of storytelling
Side Effects: Questionable accents; Pacing of longer scenes

[Nymphomaniac: Volume I is available now on FlixFling and other VOD services.]

From the title of Lars von Trier’s new film, it seems clear that this project fits the mold he’s established of edgy subject matter and a confrontational style. After all, it’s not only called Nymphomaniac, it’s also broken into two volumes totaling four hours. And while typically von Trier’s provocations neither offend nor inspire me, I was surprised by just how nimble and playful Volume I of this epic of sex and self-loathing feels.

It’s strange writing about this film half finished. It very self-consciously sets itself up as a story—the narrative of the pleasure and shame of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she recounts it to a man who’s taken her in—and yet her story abruptly pauses midway through, leaving little indication as to where von Trier intends to take it. It’s likely Joe’s exploits will become darker and more sordid, but von Trier has littered Nymphomaniac: Volume I with symbols and visual motifs that don’t yet point to thematic richness.

Many of these motifs arise through the comments of the listener to Joe’s story, told, so far, in extended flashbacks spanning many years. Played by Stellan Skarsgård, the man relates Joe’s experiences to his own interests: her sexual predation reminds him of fly-fishing, a series of encounters harmonize like voices in classical music. These darkly humorous analogies unfold through a wide variety of visual techniques such as split-screen, superimposition and on-screen text, which demonstrate both von Trier’s strength in creating mood through images as well as his weakness in distilling mood into pointed insight.

Much has been made of the film’s explicit nature, and while it is certainly more frank and graphic than most, Nymphomaniac is not interested in titillation, sensuality or even romance. Instead, von Trier uses Joe’s insatiable hunger to suggest a deeper existential emptiness: she can only define herself through her own desires, she’s incapable of intimacy or empathy, and she’s saddled with guilt. It seems as if this self-loathing might become a central theme of Volume II. Nymphomaniac, then, isn’t about whether Joe can find the love of another, but whether she can learn to love herself.