‘Nymphomaniac’ takes liberties with narrative structure

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For filmgoers tired of Hollywood playing it safe with sex scenes look no further. “Nymphomaniac” is here with its lurid, overextended form to titillate, confound and probably make you cover your eyes.

Split into two parts released several weeks apart, Lars Von Trier’s four-hour opus is perhaps the definitive sex movie. While the film remains in two halves, it is only conceivable as a single, complete movie. Unlike “Kill Bill,” where Quentin Tarantino took divergent stylistic and narrative approaches in each half, “Nymphomaniac” parts one and two are portions of the same story.

The film opens on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is found beaten and bloody in an alleyway and is then taken in by an unassuming stranger, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He offers her tea and a bed in exchange for her life story, which begins with a series of explicit escapades as a young girl in the throes of sexual awakening and ends with the pitfalls of addiction at an older age. Joe’s childhood self is played by the magnetic Stacy Martin.

Told in a series of vignettes, each with their own stylistic flourishes, the film is disjointed. Characters come and go and subplots are dropped shortly after they are introduced. Von Trier has the freedom to use a number of actors — Christian Slater, Jamie Bell and a scene-stealing Uma Thurman, among others — to portray memorable characters in Joe’s life. Yet at times, “Nymphomaniac” acts more as a buffet of pornographic short films than one linear story.

This narrative structure acts as both the film’s greatest strength and its greatest flaw. “Nymphomaniac” works when operating in its frenzied style, but suffers when it tries to link the pieces together. In the key romantic plot — Joe’s relationship with Jerome, played by Shia Labeouf with a very questionable accent — the film lacks the subtle sensitivity to keep the viewers emotionally invested. The more poignant moments struggle to be remembered alongside more outrageous ones.

The framing narrative also struggles to ground the story, as Joe and Seligman’s back and forth never extends beyond mildly interesting allusions to fly-fishing or the Fibonacci sequence. By the end of the film, audiences are left with a mixed bag of exposed flesh, inconsistent styles and outrageous characters — it is always exciting, but never whole.

Like other efforts from Von Trier, “Nymphomaniac” can seem overwhelming at times, but that is the point. He has never been afraid of sexual violence or grand narrative shifts. However, where his last two films — “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” — wallowed in their all-consuming, and often pretentious, misery, “Nymphomaniac” demonstrates a certain lightness and inventiveness behind the camera.

Even in the movie’s darkest moments — and it gets extremely dark — there is a certain element of fun injected into the proceedings. It is a pitch-black, twisted, perverted kind of fun, but it is hard to find another film this year that is more striking, audacious and provocative than “Nymphomaniac.”

“Nymphomaniac: Volume I” is in select theaters now. “Nymphomaniac: Volume II” hits select theaters April 4.

Connor Wright is a contributing writer. Email him at film@nyunews.com.

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