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'Nymphomaniac Vol. 1' review: Yep, that's a lot of sex

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

12:00 AM CDT, March 20, 2014

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*** (out of four)

We'll get to Shia later. First:

"That's completely unacceptable," notes Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) after confessing that for many years she used her womanly powers without concern for others. "If you have wings," replies Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who gave shelter to the woman he found beaten and bloody on the ground, "why not fly?"

Throughout writer-director Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1," characters attempt to contextualize sexuality with society, music and nature. Sometimes literally: Seligman frequently compares Joe's endless stream of men -- whom she recounts in flashbacks, when she's played by newcomer Stacy Martin -- to fly fishing and the process of baiting a target. At times, it seems Von Trier ("Melancholia") is, hardly for the first time, mocking his characters. As Joe and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark of "Philomena") strut down the aisle of a train, they compete to pleasure the most men and win a bag of chocolates. Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" plays -- seemingly a sign of Von Trier watching this behavior sarcastically.

Yet he's also extremely frank about sexual discovery; prepare to have some of Joe's early explorations remind you of your own life. (Her fondness for the gym class rope, however, just made me think of Wayne and Garth.) Von Trier's also curious about love vs. sex and power vs. delusion between the genders. Joe, who sleeps with as many as 10 people per day, tells every guy she's with that he's given her her first orgasm. They all beam like they just won first place in the county fair's pumpkin-growing contest.

As you may have heard, "Nymphomaniac" is indeed the film in which actor/plagiarist/performance artist Shia LaBeouf bares all. He plays Jerome, who obliges when Joe asks him to take her virginity and, when they run into each other years later, foolishly identifies himself as her first love. Though it's surprising that Joe doesn't encounter a threat of disease or pregnancy, Von Trier doesn't play nice or easy. One sequence features a flipbook of something like 40 penises, our glimpse at Joe's experience. The filmmaker ("Dogville," "Manderlay") frequently has been someone who seems to look at non-terrible circumstances and say, "It's actually doomed," and that's the case again here. "Vol. 1" ends with shots previewing the more punishing "Vol. 2," opening April 4.

We can't criticize "Vol. 1" for a lack of consequences for the lonely, largely emotionless Joe, because this is just half the story (and a long way from the numb spiral of "Shame"). If you only watch the first half of "Titanic," you can't complain that the ship never sank.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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