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Oops! I did it again: Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

The sexual exploits of Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin, are depicted without modesty - but the film stops short of being pornographic, tempered as it is by comedy, provocation and grim detail.

Stacy Martin and Shia LaBeouf.
Naked truths: newcomer Stacy Martin and Shia LaBeouf in Nymphomaniac.

Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (18)
dir: Lars von Trier

Most of us have experienced at least one catastrophic “Did I say that aloud?” moment but we are all Kofi Annan compared to Lars von Trier. Though he has been making films – and waves – for 30 years, he has scarcely been heard in public since the press conference for Melancholia at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. There, he greeted a question about his heritage with an answer that began, “I thought I was a Jew for a long time …” before proceeding to a revelation (“I understand Hitler”) and ending with the announcement: “OK, I am a Nazi!”

The organisers declared him persona non grata (he was still proudly wearing that slogan on a T-shirt at the Berlin Film Festival this month). Though he made an apology, he quickly retracted it. “I think that anything can be said,” he has insisted. His lack of an internal censor and his attraction to the taboo are among the characteristics that make him a bracing director, so we shouldn’t be surprised if these slosh over the sides of the films like hot tea spilling from cup to saucer.

The idea of an artist who puts all his scalding material into his art, the better to lead a more harmonious existence, is a comforting one but it doesn’t apply to von Trier, who has struggled most of his life with depression. That subject was broached directly in Melancholia, in which a woman’s despair finds its mirror image in the end of the world. Yet the most potent streak of autobiography can be found in his 1998 film The Idiots, the second and strongest Dogme 95 production. That manifesto, drawn up by von Trier and his fellow Danish film-maker Thomas Vinterberg, included ten purifying decrees such as: “The camera must be hand-held” and “Shooting must be done on location”; it made wondrous sense when applied to The Idiots, in which the same quest for honesty drives the characters. They are middle-class people who have devoted their lives to feigning mental disabilities in public. They are a glorious embarrassment.

Self-portraiture continues in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which recounts the lifelong carnal habits of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg; a younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin). She is found by the scholarly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) lying battered and bloody in the street; he takes her home, where she unpicks for him her grim sexual history, from competing with a friend to see which of them can have the most sex with strangers on a single train journey to presenting herself to a professional sadist (Jamie Bell) who tells her to tie back her hair “in case it becomes necessary to hit you in the face”. The film’s explicitness approaches the pornographic – there are no holes barred – but titillation is precluded by the comic screenplay and a tone of clinical coldness. At times, it has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation, only with montages of genitalia in place of Venn diagrams and flow charts.

No film called Nymphomaniac will struggle to find an audience but viewers should remember the example of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Marketed as erotic, it transpired splendidly to be a three-hour comedy about coitus interruptus. Von Trier references Kubrick’s film in his use of Shostakovich, one of two opposing musical presences in Nymphomaniac – the other being the German industrial metal band Rammstein. This is a divided movie, torn also between its two authorial voices. For every scandalous confession by Joe, there’s a jaunty or bathetic footnote from Seligman. When she makes a tally of the number of thrusts visited on her orifices by her first lover, Seligman is ecstatic: “Those are Fibonacci numbers!” An explanation of her cruising tactics gets a professorial response: “There’s a very clear parallel to fishing in the stream,” he says merrily. It’s rather like leafing through Story of O to find that a few pages from the Encyclopaedia Britannica have strayed in.

The film is also cleaved in half in a literal sense. It is being released in two “volumes” of around two hours each, though there is no question that they need to be seen as a complete work: in for a penis, in for a pound. Admirers of von Trier are accustomed to taking the rough with the smooth and an episodic structure makes Nymphomaniac even more variable than usual. If it feels disruptive that he has included such an obvious allusion to the Cannes debacle (Seligman says, “Each time a word becomes prohibited, you remove a founding block of democracy”), there is at least a reminder of how he got himself into that mess, when Joe prefaces her sexual encounter with two black African men by saying: “I call a spade a spade.” This tendency for empty provocation, seen also in the disastrous final scene, may be the only thing separating von Trier from greatness.

However, for every moment of flippancy, there is something correspondingly intense and full-blooded: a wronged and hysterical wife (Uma Thurman) showing her children around Joe’s apartment, where their father has been spending most of his time, or the eruption of panic when Joe realises that she cannot feel anything during sex. Her explanation for her nymphomania has been that her needs are intensely heightened: “I demand more vivid sunsets,” is how she puts it. To be outraged, humiliated, affronted or even assaulted is preferable to feeling numb. Whether in film or sitting in front of unforgiving microphones, von Trier has been preaching this gospel of mischief and manic depression for his entire career.