Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a pornographic work of art. Shown separately in two volumes, an outline portrays obsessive, violent, humor, and at times remarkably eccentric sex epic that is often brilliant and never simple-minded or dull. The earlier work of the fifty-seven-year-old Danish director; Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Antichrist was soaked in show-off despair. For almost twenty years, he has triumphed on the international art-film circuit as a sensationalist and a boor, making lurid “metaphysical” movies and offering. His previous film, Melancholia (2011), chronicled the end of the world, something that he appeared to welcome, at least as a visually radiant experience.
But now he has sprung back to create the fictional history of an insatiable woman. Saying that a movie is filled with explicit scenes hardly means there are both artistically challenging and purely exploitative kinds of pornography. Von Trier, working in a rigorously formal style, and adding his own intellectual intricacy to the narrative, couldn’t be farther from the glazed single-mindedness of a routine porn director. Nymphomaniac explores one woman’s life through a recounting of her sexual history, and although it is more graphic than recent depictions of bra-in-bed lovemaking, it’s really not as extreme as it might be. In typical von Trier fashion, he sets audiences up to expect far worse to the extent one finds graphic sex scenes “bad” than what he actually gives them.
The story begin with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose life is chronicled for about four decades or so and who narrates her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an asexual intellectual who’s all mind where Joe, the nymphomaniac, is all body. Seligman, a secular Jew, has literally picked her off the pavement, where he found her bloodied and almost unconscious. He’s worried about her and wants to call an ambulance, though she insists that’s not necessary and that she’s a “bad human being” and it’s all her fault. Seligman finds this hard to believe. The story of how she got there encompasses almost her entire life, seen in long flashbacks.