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‘Nymphomaniac”: The title itself is a provocation, not that we should expect anything less from Lars von Trier, the director who has specialized in nothing but.

With the film coming on the heels of the extreme sexual violence in “Antichrist” (2012), and surrounded by rumors of graphic, hard-core content, it was easy to expect “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1” to be another exercise in von Trier pushing his audience’s buttons.

To an extent, that’s true — “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1” has its shock-value scenes, but it’s not really about the sex, as von Trier heads down a labyrinth of intellectual and sensual digressions before finally winding up with a bleak parable on human nature.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I
Rating
Director Lars von Trier
Run Time 117 minutes
Language English
Opens Oct. 11

The film begins with good-samaritan bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding an injured woman lying in the street. Her name is Joe (played by Stacy Martin as the younger woman and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the older), and as she recuperates in a bed in Seligman’s flat, she tells him, “I’m a bad human being,” and explains — sometimes in graphic detail — her unrepentant life as a sex fiend.

Von Trier frames Joe’s stories as eight separate chapters (spread out over two films spanning a total of four hours), and they run the gamut from an early sexual contest with a teenage friend — to see how many men they can shag in one train ride — and a teen club that renounces love and worships “Mea Vulva,” to adult dabblings in sadomasochism, group sex and full-blown sex addiction with dozens of partners.

Shia LaBeouf turns up as Jerome, the boy who first deflowers her and then becomes the one true love she will know, off and on, throughout her life. (LaBeouf’s usual charmlessness makes this a stretch.)

Many have compared the film to the Marquis de Sade’s writings, particularly his novel “Juliette,” with its beyond-morality heroine who shamelessly seeks out her own pleasure — and it’s an apt comparison. Not that von Trier is a sadist, but like Sade he uses a sexual odyssey as a treatise on morality, hypocrisy and freedom.

Taking it at face value, many women will no doubt decry this as an absolutely addled male look at female sexuality. Yet this film is, at times, too loopy, too silly, too hyperbolic to take at face value. “Nymphomaniac” is a film where the director is arguing with himself, contrasting the pull of Joe’s instinctual animal behavior against the sensible but self-limiting nature of Seligman’s intellectual, neutered life.

Joe tells her stories and inevitably portrays herself as a sinner using others for her own satisfaction, while Seligman inevitably tries to reassure her and find the good in it. It’s a stark battle between optimism and pessimism, and it feels honest — perhaps von Trier’s most honest film yet, like he doesn’t know where he’s going until he ends
up there.

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