Film & TV

Sundance: What Separates Von Trier's Nymphomaniac from Porn?

Let's start with the ending: the closing credits disclaimer that insists that none of the lead actors in Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac filmed penetrative sex. If there is real sex in the movie, and it sure looks like there is, it must have been done by one of the eight credited sex doubles, listed far down the crew after the cast, somewhere around the caterers and gaffers. (Humble billing, but oh what luscious names -- my favorite was Elvira Friis.) The sex doubles loaned their loins to Von Trier, who digitally stitched them to his actors. In the era of Google image search, the difference between an XXX freeze frame of an actor having sex versus a perfect simulacrum seems technical at best, though I suppose their parents must be relieved.

So yes, even though we've been informed in real life that Shia LaBeouf's penis is named Richard Dreyfus, we don't actually see the thing during a scene where he primes himself before taking 15-year-old Joe's (a brave Stacy Martin) vaginal and anal virginity, or later when the camera plants itself between his legs as she rides him like a pony. We're seeing someone else's, lots of someones elses', and if you're not prepared for a minute-long montage of full-frontal flaccid cocks, I suggest you see another film.

Of course, as Nymphomaniac started, none of us in the audience were 100 percent sure we weren't seeing the real deal. We weren't even sure we were seeing Nymphomaniac at all. It was billed only as Film X, a secret screening by "a major director." But when we entered the theater and were confronted by an 18+ only warning and a concessionaire urging us to take shots, we grinned.

We weren't seeing the full, four-hour film. Instead, this was Nymphomaniac Volume I, the first of two parts. (Volume I hits the states on March 21; the second follows in April.) Still, the crowd was so excited to catch a glimpse of Von Trier's latest that when the first image popped up on screen, a woman several rows behind me blurted, "Snow! That's snow!"

What separates Nymphomaniac from porn? A lot. For one, porn tends to be less interested in fly fishing, piano chords, rugalah, fingernail clipping, and Fibonacci, all subjects discussed at length by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård in between the bonking. They spend all of part one in Skarsgard's apartment, where he's taken her to rest and reminisce after discovering her battered in the streets. Gainsbourg, playing the grown-up Joe, is a brutal mess: lip and nose bloodied, eye blackened, legs bruised, and white painful welts throbbing on her jaw. There's no bolder or more brutal way to suggest that this woman has had hands all over her, not that she opens up to this stranger about her injuries.

Past traumas, however, are open season. We don't know much about Skarsgård's character Seligman except that he's a non-practicing Jew with a head full of trivia. He couldn't relate less to Gainsbourg, a woman possessed of the sexual power to seduce anyone, and when he tries, Nymphomaniac becomes something truly shocking: a comedy. Told of her schoolgirl sex club where she and her friends were forbidden to shag anyone twice, he gets sidetracked by their sacred chant. "That's the Devil's interval!" he chirps, digressing into a theory of musical dissonance. Told of her sex competitions where she and her best friend competed to seduce men on a train, he blurts, "That's a very clear parallel to fishing in a stream."

Factually, it's safe to assume most audiences will learn more about fly fishing than fucking. Nymphomaniac isn't interested in the hows or whats -- it cares about the whys, or from Joe's often bored expressions, the why-the-hell-nots. She doesn't have a good reason for boning seven men a night, besides the cynical line that love is "just lust with jealousy added." But do we need her to have one?

Volume I's subject is emotional penetration. As a nymph in hot pants, Martin, in flashback, pounces on a happily married man who begs her to leave him alone. She cares nothing about the consequences, and she doesn't have to: She can simply get off the train and move on. Her conquests don't register as individual men with lives beyond their moment of pleasure. Instead they're a blur, each so indistinct that she literally rolls dice to decide how to treat them. In an oddly beautiful sequence, she relates her men to music: One is the stabilizing base, another the driving thrust, and a third the fanciful melody. They don't conflict, they complement -- a counterpoint to the romanticized modern fantasy that one person can fill all our holes.

It's only when another woman enters her home -- a jilted wife and mother of three played uproariously by Uma Thurman -- that Joe is forced to recognize that her lovers have lives. Even so, she admits with a shrug, it doesn't affect her own life at all.

It must. Maybe. Unless Gainsbourg's wince-inducing injuries are unrelated to her past, a joke I wouldn't put past that trickster Von Trier. But from the quick teaser footage of Volume II over the credits, it looks like Joe's inner numbness funnels into a need for exterior pain: bondage, whipping, the abuse she seems to crave. I'll be sad if this devolves into a film where promiscuity gets punished -- and I'm still nervous that there's an "Aha!" moment ahead where she turns out to have been molested by her devoted father, Christian Slater. Yet if this surprise screening of the first half of Nymphomaniac is his way of luring us to watch the rest, consider me seduced.

Amy Nicholson is reporting on the Sundance Film Festival for the RFT. Follow her on Twitter at @theamynicholson.