Lars von Trier’s biggest trick has been convincing the world he is not serious. The Danish filmmaker adopts such a puckish public demeanor, and is given to such willful outrageousness (whimsically comparing himself to Hitler at a Cannes press conference was a particular lulu), that he has turned himself into a brand-name oddball just this side of David Lynch. Superficially, his movies create the same kind of taboo-breaking impression: radical looks at sexuality, politics, and violence (Breaking the Waves and Antichrist among them), culminating in a remarkable portrait of depression and the end of the world (Melancholia). By titling his new project Nymphomaniac, and letting it be known that this four-hour, two-part picture includes marquee names and unsimulated sex, von Trier is acting up again. There goes that old devil Lars, fanning the flames as always.
And then Nymphomaniac: Vol. I begins. Within a few minutes, there is little doubt about the filmmaker’s seriousness. Not that the film is without a playful side; droll Danish humor is abundant. But this is a real journey, recounted to us by a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is discovered, beaten up, in an alley.