Scholarly Seligman (Skarsgård) finds Joe (Gainsbourg) injured in an alley and takes her in. She recounts the story of her life from childhood — focusing on her many sexual encounters, on-off relationship with businessman Jerome (LaBeouf) and the trauma which left her in that passageway.
There will be many variant cuts of Lars von Trier’s ambitious drama, depending on how tolerant different territories are to explicit imagery and different distributors and cinema managers are to extended running times. In the UK, Nymphomaniac is released as two distinct Kill Bill-style volumes, with their own credits and end titles and even a “Coming up next on Nymphomaniac” montage at the tail of the first film to lure you back. There has been behind-the-scenes drama about the project, with debate between von Trier and his producers about what exactly to release... with a longer, perhaps more hardcore version due eventually on DVD.
Von Trier’s Kingdom was a forerunner of the talking-point genre TV that dominates the box set market, and anyone who’s ever watched a season of The Killing or Breaking Bad in one marathon go will recognise the way long-haul narrative can be compulsive. This finds its own rhythm early and is unusually free of dead spots. There’s a Scheherazade factor as Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the battered, self-hating protagonist, tells interlocking stories of her past — with digressions and footnotes from her pedantic, attentive listener — and keeps teasing us with hints of more revelations.
The conclusion of a trilogy which began with Antichrist and Melancholia (all starring Gainsbourg), this follows a self-declared “bad human being” whose compulsive behaviour takes her into stranger and stranger territory. Seemingly set in England — only Shia LaBeouf’s accent wobbles — between the 1970s and the 2000s, it focuses so narrowly on Joe’s search for sex that the world beyond her bedrooms is out of focus.
Volume I showcases newcomer Stacy Martin as Young Joe and covers childhood, a relationship with a loving father (Christian Slater) whose death in hospital (in black and white) is the most upsetting episode, loss of virginity to a moped-owning lout (LaBeouf) who pops in and out of her later life, teenage sex adventures and a farcical yet nightmarish confrontation with the wife (Uma Thurman) of a lover Joe isn’t that keen on. Volume II is more wayward, with Gainsbourg taking over, falling under the spell of a polite professional sadist (Jamie Bell). Eventually, she turns her acquired callousness to good use as a shady debt collector, taking on a surrogate daughter (Mia Goth) in a partnership which inevitably becomes sexual and equally inevitably doesn’t turn out well.
Throughout, Stellan Skarsgård enjoys himself hugely, rattling off illustrated footnotes about fly-fishing, musical or mathematical theory and mythology, but his character, Seligman, seems not to respond sexually to the stories — which are explicit, but often show things porn would be uncomfortable with (a dying man crapping himself, guys with erections having a row that scuppers a planned threesome).
Late in the day we learn about Joe’s tactic for literally getting a rise out of victims, which raises questions about the film’s storytelling kink that aren’t resolved. A coda feels trite — as if the whole epic were reduced to the two-minute skit about nymphomania Woody Allen does in Play It Again, Sam — and winds the symphony up on a bum note, but it’s still a rich movie, seductive when abandoning people for falling snow or bleak nature and funny, painful and unflinching when it gets physical.
A provocative, engrossing, often hilarious, frequently tough picture. Not for all sensibilities but it’s among von Trier’s more playful, purely entertaining films, with insight and humour in even the horrors.