Consider this a half-time report. As the art-house world is aware, sensation-seeking auteur Lars von Trier is bringing forth a two-part, four-hour sexual epic about a young woman’s joyless trek through eroticism wherever she can find it.
“Nymphomaniac Volume 1” is due this week with “Volume 2” to come in a month and a conjoined 5 1/2 hour version arriving sometime in the near future.
“Volume 1” has been press screened to this point meaning that, like Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” also released in two parts, a critic must guess at the overall shape and intent of a film on the basis of half a movie.
The guess: von Trier means to chart the erotic journey of his heroine through as many sexual episodes as he can imagine without giving her any semblance of real pleasure. Meanwhile he will contextualize the raw sex — very little of which seems anything other than simulated despite teasing prerelease hints otherwise — in an intellectual manner to amuse/stimulate/provoke the mind rather than any other organ.
These two overtly literary back-to-back films consist of four “chapters,” each with a heading related to its content, all bracketed by two actors discussing these episodes in a room furnished in an absurdly spartan fashion.
The heroine and teller of tales is Charlotte Gainsbourgh’s Joe — notice the masculine name — who has been found beaten in an alley by an older though considerate man, Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman.
She refuses for him to call either police or medical help but is more than willing for him to take her into his shabby flat where she relates her story as she recovers. He thus becomes her therapist/confessor despite being an avowed celibate and Jewish atheist.
He often points out she harmed no one in any of these adventures and sees each story in literary terms, often comparing her adventures to Roman history, Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Mann and, most amusingly, his favorite book, Izaak Walton’s treatise on fly-fishing, “The Compleat Angler.”
After Joe (played in flashbacks by Stacy Martin) loses her virginity at 15 to young Englishman Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), who approaches sex as mechanically as he does his motorcycle, her bolder girlfriend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) goads her into a contest to see how many men they can nail while on a train.
Each racks up impressive scores, although this appears like, to continue the fishing analogy, shooting fish in a barrel since the girls dress like sluts and make such direct approaches neither is likely to be denied. (There is an older ‘holdout” but he soon succumbs.)
What is remarkable here and continues on through “Vol. 1” is the blank expression on Joe’s face. This may be what her director asked for but the blankness that comes through is not that of joylessness or thoughtfulness but rather that of an inexperienced actress who does not really know what her director wants.
A good actor can make blankness work for her. In this instance, an audience is left to fill in the blanks.
There is one truly great sequence involving “Kill Bill’s” Uma Thurman as a wronged wife marching her small boys up to the flat of her husband’s mistress — that would be Joe — to say goodbye and see daddy’s new woman and surroundings. A strong, bravura performance by Thurman here stops the heart. It’s funny, yes, but scary and hellishly dramatic — the first half’s one great moment.
Equally as strong but very depressing is a black-and-white interlude where Joe must experience the hospital death of her physician father (Christian Slater) while he endures delirium tremens.
Episodes where Joe experiences scheduling complexities as she tries to fit in trysts with as many as ten men a day add up to very little. What are you to make of this? It makes no sense for any non-prostitute to schedule her life so. It’s clearly just a figment of von Trier’s imagination.
“Vol. 1” ends with Joe’s declaration, “I can feel nothing.” Since at this point an audience might say the same, you can only hope that “Vol. 2” will get more feelings into the proceedings. Or at least more eroticism.
Opens: March 21, 2014 (Magnolia Pictures)
Production: Zentropa Entertainment
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen
Director/screenwriter: Lars von Trier
Producer: Louise Vesth
Executive producers: Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Marie Gade Denessen, Peter Garde
Director of photography: Manuel Alberto Claro
Production designer: Simone Grau Roney
Visual effects supervisor: Peter Hjorth
Costume designer: Manon Rasmussen
Editor: Molly Marlene Stensgaard
No rating, 123 minutes