If ever there were a telethon to end slut shaming, the poster child would be Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Her 40 years of sexual adventures have left her beaten and bruised in an alley. There she’s found by a kind-hearted bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), and like the courtesan in “One Thousand and One Nights,” she beguiles him with her tale.
In the first volume of Lars Von Trier’s two-part “Nymphomaniac,” Joe (played in flashbacks by coltish newcomer Stacy Martin) discovers her sexual impulses as a daydreaming adolescent, a period when she roamed the forests with her physician father (Christian Slater). But it’s central to Von Trier’s provocative intent that his anti-heroine is not a victim of incest or seduction at the hands of an authority figure. She’s impelled on a journey with cosmic origins and no finish line.
The first lover she seeks is a roughneck motorcycle mechanic named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Their coupling is brief. But good listener Seligman, a monkish man with expertise that ranges from fly-fishing to classical music to medieval Christianity, deduces how it planted a seed.
While Joe’s litany of conquests is punctuated with un-simulated sex scenes (some employing body doubles), Von Trier is a trickster who continually interrupts the eroticism. In one painfully funny sequence, Uma Thurman plays a spurned wife who brings her three sons to Joe’s apartment so they can see the bed where daddy sleeps. Meanwhile, another deluded lover arrives at the front door with flowers.
The over-riding joke is that Joe is an empty vessel that neither she nor her lovers can fill. She’s so single-minded in her (futile) pursuit of pleasure, she never learns another skill; luckily she lands a job where jealous Jerome shuffles papers.
“Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1” is presented as a stand-alone film, but without an explanation for the protagonist’s physical and emotional injuries, it’s a head-scratcher. As with Joe’s sexual compulsion, scratching can’t cure the itch.
What “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1” • Two and a half stars out of four • Rating Not rated • Run time 1:58 • Content Explicit sex scenes, nudity, strong language and some violence • Where Tivoli Theatre