BY STEVE ERICKSON | Now that marijuana is legal in two US states and porn is ubiquitous online, one could say that countercultural liberationists have achieved important aims. Except that there’s little idealism left about sex and drugs as agents of cultural transformation. A few recent films have attempted to chart the way the sexual revolution led, for some, away from liberation toward mean-spirited and self-destructive gamesmanship.
The story of a heterosexual woman, Lars von Trier’s “The Nymphomaniac: Volume One” is the cautionary tale Alain Guiraudie’s gay “Stranger By the Lake” tried and failed to be. Although it includes several scenes of hardcore sex, “The Nymphomaniac: Volume One” recalls films from the tail end of the softcore heyday, when many filmmakers still aimed to combine porn with a level of artistic ambition. Von Trier even shows himself to be one of the few heterosexual male directors who’s not afraid to reveal the penis, offering up a montage of dozens of members.
A wounded woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lies bleeding from her face in an alley. She’s in an unnamed European country where everyone speaks English. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a middle-aged Jewish man with a penchant for fly-fishing, takes her in and offers her tea, pastry, and a bed to sleep in. A self-proclaimed nymphomaniac, Joe relates her sexual adventures, which began when she was a teenager. The young Joe is played by Stacy Martin.
“The Nymphomaniac: Volume One” is bound to be greeted with suspicion in certain quarters, especially from feminists. This is perfectly justified. Von Trier has a reputation as a misogynist, borne out by the treatment of women as sacrificial victims in many of his films and the on-set reports of his abusive behavior toward some actresses. (Despite those reports, Gainsbourg is now working with him for the third time.) Large sections of “The Nymphomaniac: Volume One” play like male fantasies. I think von Trier is smart enough to realize this, anticipate the criticism, and work around it by setting Joe up as an unreliable narrator. In fact, Seligman questions her story’s believability.
“The Nymphomaniac: Volume One” is a film about storytelling –– the ways we present ourselves to other people and the possibility of some people making themselves look worse out of an inverted narcissism. For his part, Seligman relates to the world through elaborate metaphors drawn from fishing and Bach’s music, which he explains in detail. Von Trier isn’t afraid to remind the audience we’re watching a European art film, possibly with tongue in cheek. As dark as the film gets, it never leaves its sense of humor behind.
One key scene, in which Joe and a friend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) ride a train to compete for a bag of candy by seeing how many men each can seduce, definitely plays like a fantasy –– more akin to a “Penthouse Forum” letter than something two teenage girls would actually live out. But it’s probably as close as Joe ever gets to a healthy exploration of her sexuality. She talks about the experience as if it were shameful and horrible, but apart from her seduction of a married man, it’s far less amoral than her future dalliances with multiple men at the same time.
If von Trier may be guilty of presenting active female sexuality as pathological, he’s not just criticizing a single woman’s behavior in “The Nymphomaniac: Volume One.” I don’t think he gave Joe a man’s name by chance. Her attitudes toward her lovers are stereotypically masculine, in fact. She separates lust from love and toys with the emotions of her multiple partners, deciding whether to dump them or express outpourings of love on the roll of dice. Her world resembles that of pick-up artist books and websites, not sex-positive feminism or books like “The Ethical Slut.” The attitudes von Trier critiques don’t belong only to a single gender.
“The Nymphomaniac: Volume One” will be followed by the second volume, another two-hour film, released a few weeks later. Both films were whittled down from a five and a half-hour version, which will see US release in some form (probably home video) eventually. This part leaves open the question of how Joe got wounded. Prudes and people who think the worst of von Trier may think it’s punishment for her sexual adventures. They may be right, but “The Nymphomaniac: Volume One” continues the winning streak of von Trier’s brilliant “Melancholia” after a decade that bottomed out with his abysmal “Antichrist.” For once, the artist is working hand in hand with the provocateur.
THE NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME ONE | Directed by Lars von Trier | Magnolia Films | Opens Mar. 21 | Landmark Sunshine, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarktheatres.com