In Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac Volume 1,” a bruised and bloody woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is found lying in a back alley by a lonely man (Stellan Skarsgard). Once he ushers her into his home and gets her situated in bed with tea, he invites the woman to tell her story. How did she get there?
Thus begins Joe’s tale of nymphomania, or as she would have it, a lifelong search for “sensation.” As she recounts the games she’d play as a youngster to pique arousal, and her loss of virginity to a boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), Skarsgard continually interrupts to point out how her story parallels that of river trout. He’s intellectualizing her sordid tales, in a wickedly humorous way, which is indeed what “Nymphomaniac” is doing, too.
The first volume is largely a comedy. It’s sardonic and detached, which has the unfortunate effect of keeping Joe at arm’s length. She feels less like a real character than a symbol. This of course could be seen as a meta commentary of some sort by von Trier -- we feel at a distance from Joe, cut off from her, as she does from sex -- but it’s still frustrating.
Formally, von Trier is ace, as always. The largely handheld film is shot by Manuel Alberto Claro (“Melancholia”) in rich browns and greys. Its drab palette has significance, as Joe mentions that her only sin is “that she’s always demanded more of the sunset.” She’s looking for color -- for feeling, for sensation -- but hasn’t fully found it, despite her endless series of orgasms. Meanwhile, von Trier is clearly having fun with visual gimmicks, overlaying geometrical symbols and mathematical equations on the images as Joe tells her tale.
Joe’s misadventures play out in chapters, as we know from the film’s lengthy publicity campaign with its “appetizer” teaser spots. This includes a teenage Joe fucking and sucking men on a train, in a competitive game with her friend; going to work at an office where Jerome now works as manager, falling in love with him and then losing track of him; later keeping up an elaborate sex schedule, juggling seven or eight men a night (which results in a marital ordeal with a frenzied Uma Thurman); and dealing with the slow, painful death of her father (Christian Slater).
In all these chapters, young Joe is played by lanky Stacy Martin, good but also inscrutable. Meanwhile, the sex is graphic but cold, part of the elaborate joke of the film. You wanted sex? Well, here it is. Enjoying it? No, didn't think so.
The penultimate chapter with Slater is where the film shifts from comedy to tragedy, and von Trier somewhat salvages our emotional interest in Joe, though it does feel like too little too late. Reactions in the Sundance audience seemed to be mixed, more hyperbolic than my own -- uproarious laughter but also walkouts. We’ll see where “Volume 2” goes. Joe’s tormenting interests are in the flesh, though I have yet to feel like she’s made of flesh and blood.
"Nymphomaniac Volume 1” is now available on VOD. It hits theaters March 21, with "Volume 2" arriving on April 18 (VOD April 3), via Magnolia.