To recap: Lars von Trier makes an explicit film called Nymphomaniac; he orchestrates some traditional tongue-in-cheek Trier publicity about "hardcore" and "softcore" versions; he even induces excitable critics in Denmark and elsewhere to pull a gallery of orgasm faces in homage to the naughty poster campaign – like a Victorian medical textbook about congenital idiocy. Yet his new film is his most inoffensive, which is to say its offensiveness is deliberate; it's the first Von Trier film that is not a tiresome practical joke on the audience. It is about the most tender, platonic relationship imaginable: a depressed and exhausted woman and an elderly, vulnerable man, played superbly by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård.
Skarsgård is Seligman, a lonely old bachelor who discovers Joe (Gainsbourg) lying bruised, bleeding and semi-conscious near his apartment building. She curtly asks him not to call an ambulance and certainly not the police, but agrees to come with him to his flat to have a cup of tea and get cleaned up.
Something in Seligman's mild, non-threatening manner inspires confidence and she tells him her life story: a porn-epic rake's progress of fanatically promiscuous sex and alienation lasting four hours (and two movies): weird reversals of boredom, brutality and excitement. Seligman responds with a kind of kindly donnish detachment bordering on the autism spectrum by comparing her sexual experience to subjects such as fly-fishing and the polyphony of JS Bach.
His comments are massively obtuse – or poetically perceptive and inspired. Either he has wonderful emotional intelligence – or he is the village idiot. When Joe reveals that her first partner penetrated her vaginally three times and anally five times, Seligman responds: "Three plus five! Those are numbers in the Fibonacci sequence!" Gainsbourg becomes amused, irritated and weirdly liberated by his childlike digressions. Her unmistakably light, mellifluous voice in English always has an edge of deadpan sarcasm. It always reminds me of Peter Ustinov's remark that his French wife, speaking English, always sounded contemptuous and derisive no matter what the innocuous endearment. Gainsbourg's own unreadable vocal hauteur is given full play. Slowly but surely, Seligman and Joe become friends, of a sort, and all the sex, all the degradation has to be read against the strange comedy of this odd-couple friendship. He is the anti-Mephistopheles to her non-Faust. Yet there is also something magnificently crass in the way Von Trier finally refuses the lenient, sentimental ending he had been heading towards, and restates the final, destructive power of sex.
For the very first time, I think Von Trier has given us a film without any of the tiresome hoax provocation that has always been a part of even his most admired works. heartfelt and even passionate, especially in one image of Joe, utterly alone in a stark landscape, reaching towards a gnarled treetrunk: the part her father had once told her was the "soul" of a tree.
That is not to say that the director has gone without any of his old tricksiness. He playfully alludes to his earlier films Breaking the Waves and Antichrist, and is still clearly very prickly about the "Nazi" controversy of two years ago, when he was thrown out of the Cannes film festival for making a Hitler joke at a press conference. Out of nowhere, Seligman pointedly explains the virtue of being "anti-Zionist, not antisemitic". The movie is sited in a bizarre, faintly preposterous made-up northern European country that looks like a cross between Finland and Britain. The actors very occasionally have that faint look of bewildered panic that English-speaking actors often have in Von Trier's films. Poor Shia LaBeouf looks unhappy sometimes. But the performances are mostly even and assured. The movie is speckled with the little jabs and pokes of absurdity, but they simply add to the intrigue.
Joe explains that she was intensely sexual as a child, and at 12 experienced a quasi-orgasmic epiphany that may have been an epileptic episode, transformed into sexual feeling out of force of will. She was very close to her gentle, nature-loving father (Christian Slater) and yet her passion for sex can't be explained away in Freudian terms. Young Joe (played by newcomer Stacy Martin) has her first sexual experience with Jerôme played with a bizarre Aussie-Brit accent by LaBeouf, and it leads to compulsive sex with thousands of different men. A scorned wife, played with hurricane force by Uma Thurman, confronts Joe, but she is entirely unfazed. Her search for ever more intense experiences leads her to be brutally beaten by a professional sadist called K (Jamie Bell) – almost unwatchable scenes.
And all the time Joe insists that she is nothing so banal as a sex addict, preferring the quaint term "nymphomaniac", that time-honoured staple of porn, erotic literature and quaint male fantasy. Despite Joe's dull sense that she must be a bad person – a qualm effectively cancelled by her refusal to concede that she is doing anything really wrong – she loves her obsession, she exults in her degradation. She has no wish to be relieved of it and prefers it to the dullness and hypocrisy of everything and everyone that surrounds her. There is heroism in her descent and, with its shaggy-dog stretches of deadpan tedium and detonations of porn-outrage, there is a pulpy brilliance in Lars von Trier's film.