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Movie review: Volume 1 of sex tale is flat and monotonous

Willem Dafoe (left) and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in “Nymphomaniac Volume 1,” which opens today at Zinema 2. (Photo from

The yelling. Oh, the yelling.

The screaming. Such screams.

And don’t even get me started about the howling.

You might think when it comes to a movie titled “Nymphomaniac Volume 1,” the yelling and the screaming and the howling would all be sex-

related, but the loudest (and the most irritating) noises in this film emanate from a man who is dying and from a woman who has been betrayed. No doubt some humans would indeed create such primal sounds when in such situations, but in the typical fashion of director Lars von Trier, it’s as if the shrieking is intended to annoy the daylights out of us. Anything to get a reaction.

Yet the yelling isn’t the most haunting sound in this film. We’ll get to Shia LaBeouf’s British accent down the road.

In the opening half of a two-part film (the second will be released this month), Stellan Skarsgard’s Seligman, a lonely academic, finds Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe in a beaten and bloodied state on the street. Seligman scoops up Joe and brings her to his apartment, nursing her to recovery as she recounts the story of her life, which is mostly about sex, sex and even more sex.

The young Joe is played by Stacy Martin, who is quite pretty and a decent actress, and who has more sex scenes with more partners in this one film than many actors will rack up in an entire career. Joe and her equally sexed-up friend “B” (Sophie Kennedy Clark) board a train without tickets and have a competition to see who can have the most trysts with the most men, and that’s just one of the ways in which Joe and her friends procure partners. They even have a chant: “Mea Maxima Vulva!”

As Seligman listens intently, sometimes reacting with shock, at other times offering words of comfort or understanding, the adult Joe tells of young Joe having a steady roster of lovers who come to her apartment, one after another, the appointments so close together there are times when one mope is waiting outside with flowers while she’s finishing up with another guy.

Ah, and then there’s LaBeouf. His Jerome is a British cad who takes Joe’s virginity (at her request) when she is a teen. Years later, Joe is hired at a firm where she reports directly to Jerome, who assumes the sex will be there for the taking, but is instead tormented as Joe hooks up with just about every other man in the office.

LeBeouf’s accent is so howlingly bad you wonder if he’s doing it as a put-on. Or maybe it’s just that bad.

Uma Thurman also wanders in as a betrayed wife who storms into Joe’s apartment with her children in tow and systematically emasculates her husband in front of the kids while asking Joe questions such as, “Can I see the whoring bed?” What horrifies Joe most about the encounter is she doesn’t really want this woman’s husband; she had merely given him an ultimatum, figuring he would never leave his wife and Joe would be rid of him. Whoops.

There is much explicit sex in “Nymphomaniac Volume 1,” but it’s hardly “an erotic journey,” to quote a fictional film noted on “Seinfeld.” Martin and other actors shed their clothes and simulate sex, and we’re told pornography actors provided the equipment for the graphic close-up scenes. (The credits include eight sex doubles.) Apparently von Trier has come up with a whole new way to make use of CGI technology.

We don’t yet know what led to the middle-aged Joe being left for dead on a cold street in the dark of night, but we know her voracious sexual appetite and her myriad encounters with perhaps hundreds of men hardly left her empowered or liberated or even particularly satisfied.

“I’m just a bad human being,” Joe says to Seligman, who keeps comparing Joe’s adventures to fly fishing. Yes, fly fishing.

There’s also much discussion of how the various chapters in Joe’s sexual life correspond to classical music and mathematical concepts such as the Fibonacci sequence, in which you begin with 0 and 1, add the numbers, then take that number and add it to the next number, and ...

Anyway. Even with all the metaphors about trees and trains and fly fishing, and the several genuinely funny moments, and the fine work from the actors, and the bizarre montage of male genitalia close-ups, and the grunting and the grinding, “Nymphomaniac Part 1” grows flat and monotonous, and comes across as just what it is: half a film.

Perhaps the second half will bring more profound revelations about sex and big ideas, more insight into Joe’s character, more truths. Or maybe we’ll just see more chapters about empty sex and hear more prattling on about how Joe’s sexual history and fly fishing have much in common.

‘Nymphomaniac Volume 1’

2 stars

Joe: Charlotte Gainsbourg

Seligman: Stellan Skarsgard

Young Joe: Stacy Martin

Jerome: Shia LaBeouf

Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Lars von Trier. Running time: 117 minutes. No MPAA rating.