Every Lars von Trier movie, deep down, is about how depressed Lars von Trier is and how much Lars von Trier hates himself, which is another reason it's amazing how gleefully deranged and entertaining each of his movies keeps turning out to be. He is the world's strangest guilt artist. He keeps finding new ways to make us watch him hit himself.
Von Trier is a huckster, con man, and relentless self-promoter; he is a wildly talented filmmaker; and he's a total turgid drag of a human being. These three things combine to make the craziest-ass films, particularly in the last few years. Two films ago, his obsessions with guilt and loss and pain and nihilism gave us Antichrist, a film in which a fox starts talking out of nowhere, in which Willem Dafoe has his testicles pounded with a hammer and then Charlotte Gainsbourg, somehow, goes through something even worse. In 2011, he made Melancholia, which basically compared the crippling exhaustion of life's futility to a rogue planet destroying all life on Earth and argued, convincingly, that the extinction of humanity was the preferable option. These were both pretty great films, while also being completely ridiculous. He's a high-concept misery tenor.
But none of that compares with Nymphomaniac, Part One, which is available now on demand and hits theaters March 21. The movie is ostensibly a look at a lifelong nymphomaniac (played by Gainsbourg as an adult and newcomer Stacy Martin as a younger woman) telling the story of her life and her addiction to an academic named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds her in the street. That's not what it's really about, though: It's about von Trier, as always, exorcising his personal demons in plain view, in the most over-the-top, lunatic ways as possible. If you take a step back from it and realize that von Trier is essentially filming sex shows with Hollywood actors and having them do horrible things to each other and occasionally showing two-minute montages of flaccid penises, and he's doing all this to let us know he feels lonely a lot and wonders if maybe he's a bad person … it's sort of the most insane thing in the world. Fortunately: He's so, so good at it. Von Trier is an idiot, but, you know, the genius kind.
The movie's framing device—that Joe (Gainsbourg) just stumbles across the world's kindest and most patient man, who is willing to hear her whole life story while occasionally comparing hardcore anal sex to a specific form of bait you use while fly fishing—is so dumb that you can't help but give yourself over to it. Joe tells Seligman tales of her youth, about how she was basically born with an insatiable appetite and about all the chaos that would ensue, and von Trier uses that clothesline to hang a series of batshit vignettes that have everything but a talking fox.
This is the type of movie in which Joe will say, "I was fucked three times in the cunt and five times in the ass" and Seligman will respond with, "Three, and five: Those are Fibonacci numbers!" and then we get a scene of young Joe, unsimulated, blowing a guy on a train, and then we get an extreme closeup of a vaginal speculum. And von Trier somehow makes this work! Working in such a sensationalist vein, von Trier is oddly liberated, and he just flits from one scenario to the next, hopping genres to and fro. There's a long segment in which Joe talks a man into letting her perform oral sex on him that's surprisingly sad, followed by a big, emotional scene in which Joe watches her kindly, sickly father (played by Christian Slater, because von Trier is a crazy person) soil himself on his deathbed, followed by super-serious lines like, "We were rebelling against love, committed to combatting the love-fixated society." You groan, and you grin.
Von Trier shoots each of these segments in entirely different formats, with entirely different tones, and it becomes clearer as you go along that he's getting off on it: that the wild careening is the fun, the point. In the film's most breathtaking scene, Uma Thurman, doing her best Blue Jasmine, charges into young Joe's home (where Joe has been sleeping with her husband) with her three children and comes unhinged. The scene is wrenching and tragic, but most of all, it's hilarious: By the time Uma is telling her sons to go sit on Joe's bed, "your daddy's favorite place," it's obvious von Trier is milking this for all it's worth. It is a thunderbolt of a scene, one you need a director like von Trier, one as flexible and why-the-hell-not? as he is, to pull off.
Von Trier is still a drag, of course: The film ends with someone screaming, "WHY CAN'T I FEEL ANYTHING????" (Eventually, von Trier's just going to name one of this films that.) But he's a special kind of drag, unleashed and tap-dancing to the morgue as fast as he can. This is a movie that has a ton of hardcore sex that isn't even vaguely erotic, yet it's a filmmaker having the most fun he's had in his career. Nymphomaniac, Volume Two comes out next month. I can't fathom what he's going to come up with for that one, and I can't wait. The world needs more beautiful lunatics like this one.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.