Movie Review: ‘Nymphomaniac’ just plain boring

The shock of watching “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1” doesn’t stem from the explicit sex scenes or the sociopathic, sex-addict protagonist who endures and enables them. Instead, it’s induced by the tortuous boredom of sitting through a film whose taboo subject matter and distinguished pedigree promised so much more. Director Lars von Trier, who’s made harrowing beauty out of controversial material in the past – think of the genital mutilation in “Antichrist,” and the apocalyptic depression of “Melancholia” – fails to apply the kinetic horror of those movies to his latest and least challenging picture.

I suspect that was deliberate, considering the curious bombast of the film’s marketing campaign in hindsight: let’s just say the posters and trailers were not safe for work. So it appears von Trier has staged a coup, teasing something provocative – and characteristic – but delivering the mundane. I can hear him now, deadpanning in his Danish accent: It’s the foreplay that matters in the end; not the climax.

If the promotional material was deceptive, the film’s energy is at least true to the way its lead, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), emotionally detached, tells the tale of her promiscuous adolescence to a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who finds her on her back, bloodied and bruised in a dark alley on a rainy night at the film’s open. He takes her in, offers her tea, a pastry and a place to sleep, and listens to her story.

Seen in flashbacks, Young Joe (Stacy Martin) is callous and enigmatic. She discovers her sexual hold over men one night on a train when she and her best friend challenge each other to see who can sleep with the most passengers. What starts out as a perverted game becomes a way of life for Joe, juggling the complicated logistics of sleeping with several men every day, sometimes wrecking homes, and always boosting or destroying egos. Believing that love is just “lust with jealousy,” Joe justifies her actions to Seligman even as she admits wrongdoing.

Seligman is enthralled (far more than I was), and offers Joe sympathy though she constantly rejects it. As her lonely caretaker, Seligman allows her to regale him with few interruptions. Those interruptions, though, are often quite funny, as he compares the act of luring a man into bed to music theory and fly fishing. More concerned with the mechanics of sex addiction than its consequences, Seligman gives Joe different ways of understanding her situation, even as she protests that he never will.

Metaphors abound in “Nymphomaniac,” perhaps to say that the human experience cannot be encapsulated in language and images alone – which are, of course, sensations, ephemeral feelings of varying degrees that never satisfy completely. By using sex addiction as a motif, von Trier acknowledges here the futility of his art form. So there is no end in sight, for Joe, or her audience. At least the leaden narrative framing device makes that threat. However reflective of the movie’s theme of unfulfillment, it serves also as an excuse to forgo dramatic momentum for didacticism expressed in stiff dialogue.

When the talking does stop for brief moments, and von Trier, a director with an electrifying visual style, allows his images to take over, the film achieves a sort of tactile poetry, as characters wander through a wintry forest or as the sound of rain falling on shingles eases us into the film’s opening setting. This is a film about feeling. Too bad it’s not much fun.

2 1/2 stars out of 4.

Not rated.