What separates Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac
from porn? A lot. For one, porn tends to be less interested in fly fishing, piano chords, rugelach, fingernail clipping, and Fibonacci, all subjects discussed at length by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) in between the bonking. They spend this first volume in Seligman's apartment, where he's taken her to rest after discovering her battered in the streets. Seductive Joe doesn’t open up about her injuries; past traumas, however, are open season, and when Seligman tries to relate to her, Nymphomaniac
becomes something truly shocking: a comedy. Told of the schoolgirl sex club where she was forbidden to shag anyone twice, Seligman gets sidetracked by their sacred chant. "That's the devil's interval!" he chirps, digressing into a theory of musical dissonance. An off-kilter pleasure, Nymphomaniac
isn't interested in 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. But do we need her to have one? As a nymph in hot pants, young Joe (Stacy Martin) pounces on a happily married man who begs her to leave him alone. Her conquests don’t register as individuals 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 fantasy that one person can fill all our holes.
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Let's start with Nymphomaniac's ending, the closing credits disclaimer that insists that none of the lead actors in Lars von Trier's two-part erotic epic filmed penetrative sex. If there is real sex in the movie, and it sure looks like there is, it must have been the duty of the...