NYMPHOMANIAC is a fucking marathon. Released theatrically in two volumes (with a couple weeks' recovery time in between, what with all the chafing), Lars von Trier's four-hour-long meditation on fucking, fly fishing, and the futility of love takes a kind of smug satisfaction in the severity of its indulgences—it revels in explicitness, violence, and anguish to an even greater degree than the director's already thoroughly misanthropic previous works. Even for the divisive Dane's long-suffering partisans, it's a little much—but for all its gluttony, Nymphomaniac still manages to be surprisingly thin on the director's (admittedly dubious) redemptive qualities.
(A bit of confusing clerical business to get out of the way: Though Nymphomaniac, Volume 1 and Volume 2 open in Portland on March 28 and April 18, respectively, they're both already available On Demand—so if you're the kind of person who doesn't mind watching Charlotte Gainsbourg getting hate-fucked over and over again in your parents' living room, you can double down on both films. Which is what we did. This review, therefore, concerns the two films as a whole.)
So here's the story: A bookish intellectual (Stellan Skarsgård) finds the beaten, near lifeless body of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, von Trier's #1 rag doll) in an alleyway, then helps her up into his apartment for tea and sympathy. The pair spend the rest of the film waxing philosophical and pornographic—both speak at length, with seemingly complete indifference to one another. Joe—the titular nympho—recalls her biography of depravity, while Skarsgård acts as a subtextual counterpoint to her increasingly graphic vignettes (many of which co-star Shia LaBeouf, whose supposedly cockney accent skillfully circumnavigates the globe with every sentence).
Occasionally, this heavy hand is used to beautiful effect—like when von Trier cunningly weaves in a tutorial on Bach's use of polyphony to illustrate Gainsbourg's rationalizations of her multiple lovers. More often than not, the diversions—fly fishing, Fibonacci numbers, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc.—feel like too-clever intellectual window dressing to scotch tape together a disjointed series of fuck films.
For all of its anguished extremity, Nymphomaniac is strangely neither helped nor hindered by its oppressive duration—a weirdly ambivalent detail for a film so self-satisfied with its own relentless transgression. Because of its incoherence, each of the supporting performances (chiefly, Uma Thurman's incredible, scene-chewing woman scorned) play out like a cavalcade of cameos, with neither weight nor consequence. There's a lazy film studies thesis to be had in all of this—how von Trier is making an art film equivalent to the loose vignette structure of narrative pornography—but that's giving it too much credit. Besides, pornography at least serves a purpose—a purpose it accomplishes with significantly more efficiency.
Though there's a common conception that he's content simply to traffic in monomaniacal shock value, I've always advocated for von Trier as a kind of broad-stroke moralist—a relentlessly saturnine filmmaker more concerned with composing successful parables than with anchoring his films in any rational reality. And like any good fairy tale, Nymphomaniac is a grotesque, sadistic allegory, peopled less by believable characters than extended, cynical archetypes. But unlike those in von Trier's other, more successful stories, Nymphomaniac's archetypes are so paper thin that they border on abstraction—circling so broadly around his themes that they're removed from humanity altogether. While many of his films are heartless, Nymphomaniac is the first Lars von Trier film without any heart.