Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac contains nothing less than the future of movies: Celebrities and fashion models are digitally grafted onto the thrusting, interpenetrating genitalia of unknown porn actors, who hump in relative anonymity. Call it ghost porn, stunt porn, whatever you like. It's brilliant.
But it's also a grade-A troll of the moviegoing public, as are the credits, which blitzkrieg the viewer with Rammstein over disconnected fits of self-degradation and vagina still lifes. The mere casting of Shia LeBeouf as a love interest—or Christian Slater as a loving father—points to a seething, Andy Kaufmanesque wit.
Ambiguous humor and vicious seriousness often intersect uncomfortably in von Trier's films. Nymphomaniac—the third in the Danish director's "Depression Trilogy" after the brutal Antichrist and lovely Melancholia—arrives with a firestorm of press about sex, sex and more sex among LeBeouf, Charlotte Gainsbourg and model Stacy Martin (who plays the young version of Gainsbourg). But as in most von Trier movies, the real subject isn't so much sex as the endless suffering of women. It's part sympathy, part clinical exploitation, part digressive philosophical inquiry.
Gainsbourg's character, Joe, the titular nymphomaniac, arrives as a beaten hump, and is rescued by a creepily deadpan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). This first installment—Volume 2 comes out in a month—is essentially Joe's confession of her history of joyless sex with 10 or 20 men a day since she was a teenager.
Seligman hilariously compares her sexual conquests to fly-fishing, Fibonacci numbers and classical polyphony (often with quirky visual cues) to tell her that her experiences are all perfectly normal. They aren't, of course. Her first sexual experience is getting fucked in the ass by LeBeouf. Life isn't normal after that. And so her next exploit is a game of how many strangers one can boff on a train, and then a glee club devoted to defeating love.
In its absurdist utopianism without understanding, it reaches back to von Trier's most vital movie, The Idiots. But unlike that film, Nymphomaniac is almost without affect, save a movie-stealing scene in which Uma Thurman plays a passive-aggressive, wronged wife who's come to see the "whoring bed." The others are all dead-faced props. It's almost as if von Trier wanted to be free to use people without the distraction of personality. Which makes him a lot like his main character.
Critic's Grade: B-