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When sex is this dull, do something else instead

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Lars von Trier, cinema's greatest provocateur, dips his toe in porn with Nymphomaniac: Vol. I. Dull, carnal, and explicitly so in both regards, it's a slow-moving slog through one crushed soul as she relates the empty, passionless pursuits of her youth.

We meet Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as the kindly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) does, battered and bloodied in an alley. As he takes her in, she confesses, "I'm just a bad human being."

She proceeds to relate her sexual history, from childhood games of discovery and gym class rope-climbing "sensations" to the perfunctory way she proposes to lose her virginity to a motor-scooter buff played by Shia LaBeouf. There are carnal contests with a pal on trains, where they see how many men, young and old, they can seduce and service in the restrooms, to tedious monologues about the logistics on managing eight to 10 sex sessions a day while supposedly supporting herself with a real job and juggling the occasional real boyfriend.

Seligman, an avid fly fisherman and Bach enthusiast, interrupts her from time to time, comparing her gamesmanship to fly fishing tactics, "reading the river" as she hunts her prey, and her amorality to that moment in music called "The Devil's Interval."

Joe confesses that she "used and hurt others for my own satisfaction," but Seligman refuses to judge. He just likes hearing dirty stories from a beautiful (but battered) woman.

The story is broken into chapters, a curse of Von Trier's dullest films -- "Chapter 4: Delirium" and the like. The framework plays like the "Let me tell you a dirty story" of the earliest bawdy novels, like Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy, but rendered humourless and bland thanks to Gainsbourg's flat delivery and the poker-faced performance of Stacy Martin as the young Joe. The entire enterprise has a whiff of homage to the Golden Age of Arty Porn, the 1970s, when pretentious life narrations interrupted the assorted exotic sexual encounters of The Story of O or Emmanuelle.

When the older Joe asks, plaintively, "Am I boring you?" we smile in agreement, even as Seligman and von Trier (a long way from Breaking the Waves) are urging her on and on.

The one explosion in the film is its best scene. A shattered, embittered wife (Uma Thurman) shows up at Joe's apartment where Joe has finally talked a lover into leaving that wife. In half a dozen searing moments, she weeps her way into rage as she tells her small sons to remember this confrontation with the father whose lives he and Joe have destroyed: "It'll stand you in good stead when you're in therapy."

But even that line reads as if it should be read, not performed aloud.

The sex scenes, and LaBeouf's character turns up several times over the course of Joe's narrative, leave little doubt at their authenticity. But the object lesson in this -- fornication without feeling is lust without love -- merits a "Well, duh" in every world but von Trier's.

I'd call Nymphomaniac his first horror film, the scariest part being the Vol. I in the title.

--McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2014 D5

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