When it was announced that Lars von Trier's next film was going to be a two-parter called Nymphomaniac, I was worried. 2009's Antichrist and 2011's Melancholia were both astonishing and frequently difficult films, but also breathtakingly gorgeous works whose most powerful images weren't even the ones involving genital mutilation. After that, von Trier turning to the story of one woman's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk — or bumming around a German town standing in for Britain, as it turned out — seemed like a step backward.
Granted, after the metaphoric and literal apocalypses of Antichrist and Melancholia (respectively), there's no way the themes of Nymphomaniac wouldn't get scaled back a bit, but it also seemed frustratingly probable that he would scale back the sumptuous visual style as well. I wanted more of the prettiness. I wanted his next movie to be the cinematically indulgent von Trier of Melancholia, not the ascetic of Breaking the Waves.
Frustration, anticipation, and release: Nymphomaniac: Volume I opens with a thematic prologue similar to those past two films, in this case a slow pan through a rainy alleyway, with an emphasis on sound, texture, and even birth imagery that strongly recalls the opening of David Lynch's Eraserhead. Whew! It's no Melancholia, but Lars is still playing with his toys.
The press release for the Nymphomaniac saga includes this humblebrag: "As widely reported, the films contain graphic depictions of sexuality to a degree unprecedented in a mainstream feature film." While that's true as far as it goes, it also begs the question: In what universe does a Lars von Trier film qualify as "mainstream?" The sex in Nymphomaniac: Volume I is all in flashback as a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), discovered beaten in an alleyway by an open-minded intellectual (Stellan Skarsgård), tells him her life story vis-à-vis her self-diagnosed nymphomania. The cast's private parts are digitally replaced with those of porn actors during the explicit sex scenes (it's a pity Shia LaBeouf's horrible English accent couldn't have also been digitally altered in post-production), but the film is less about sex than the head games and logistics surrounding sex and, heaven forfend, relationships. The Fibonacci Numbers and the Devil's Tritone figure into it as well, somehow. Pretentious twaddle? Possibly, but von Trier's films never lack for interesting ideas, whether they cohere or not.
In a weird way, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is von Trier lightening up: The picture is actually funny. Not in the "the universe laughs at us" way of (to name a random example) Dancer in the Dark, or the confused, nervous laughter that results from a fox intoning "Chaos reigns," but intentional levity and jokes, including a runner about the importance of cake-forks as symbols of masculinity and/or bourgeois privilege.
And, despite the famous ad campaign that suggested otherwise, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is by no means a celebrity sex-o-rama. Not all of the stars of this movie who made their best O-faces for the posters necessarily even get sex scenes. Maybe in Volume II.