The "nymphomaniac" of the title isn't really the central character of Danish director Lars von Trier's latest film, played at two different stages of their lives by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg. No, the real "nymphomaniac" is Mr. von Trier himself, making a sort of aesthetic autobiography, a film à clef full of thinly-veiled references to his public image and past career in the shape of a bait-and-switch provocation. It's also a star-studded recap of his oeuvre's stylistic and formal approaches disguised as a socratic dialogue between a speaker and a listener, alternating between the tragic and the comedic, the highbrow and the lowbrow, in a typically and uniquely von Trier-like charade. It is, though, hard to look at Nymphomaniac Vol. I and not see in it something deeper, something more sincere and sophisticated that in many of the nakedly provocative works that made his reputation.

     Just as in the previous Melancholia you could feel a wintry, greyish, more subdued tenor, suggesting a director more at ease and more liberated the closest he feels to himself, here the structure of Joe (Ms. Gainsbourg's) sexual education is much less about sex, desire or lust than it is about emotion and life - as if she were a "woman without qualities" enveloped by guilt and despair. As she seems to confess herself to the sympathetic ear of Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) to be a mean, evil person, through a series of roughly chronological coming-of-age sketches, she is really voicing the director's own mea culpa as a master manipulator for his own purposes; substitute art for sex, note how little of the sex depicted on screen is graphic or even titillating, and you'll get yet another example of just how ambitious and hyper-sensitive Mr. von Trier is, as he attemps to create a filmic equivalent to a neo-classical dialogue or an epistolary novel as a self-justification for being the foremost contemporary agent provocateur of cinema.

     Of course, all of this may very well shift once Nymphomaniac vol. II is revealed - this is the first of two separate two-hour films edited, allegedly with the director's agreement but without his participation or involvement, down from a longer, five-hour unrated, uncensored cut. Whether this Nymphomaniac is or not what Mr. von Trier originally planned, it is nevertheless very recognisably his work, down to the demanding, nakedly confessional tenor of the performances (Ms. Gainsbourg seems to have become a regular, and Uma Thurman turns in a surprisingly against-type role as the distraught wife of a man who decides to leave his family for Joe). And the odds are you're being manipulated yet again with all the multiple-version situation - even so, there's a very strong feeling that Nymphomaniac as Melancholia before is coming across as more sincere and heartfelt than most of what Mr. von Trier has been doing ever since the early masterpiece that was Europa.

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia Labeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen
Director: Lars von Trier, with additional work by Anders Refn
Screenwriter: Mr. von Trier
Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro  (colour, widescreen) 
Designer: Simone Grau Roney
Costumes: Manon Rasmussen
Editor: Molly Malene Stensgaard
Producer: Louise Vesth  (Zentropa Entertainments 31 in co-production with Zentropa International Köln, Slot Machine Productions, Zentropa International France, Caviar Films, Zenbelgië, Zentropa International Sweden, ARTE France Cinéma, Groupe Grand Accord and ARTE G. E. I. E.)
Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium/Sweden, 2013, 117 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon, January 11th 2014

Nymphomaniac Official Trailer from Zentropa on Vimeo.


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