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Giving It Up for Von Trier's Nyphomaniac: 7 Films to Watch this Week

Lars von Trier's provacative and poetic Nymphomaniac: Part I. Image courtesy of Zoetrope Pictures.

The notion that Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I is only half of a movie doesn’t sit well: nothing about the two-hour sex opus feels incomplete –it feels delightfully restrained considering the subject matter and the director’s notorious history. Considering said history, it also feels like the edge of a precipice.

Part I concerns the young life of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the nymphomaniac of title who at the film’s outset is discovered from an alley, beaten and bloody, by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), a gentle, detached old man who installs her in a bed in his home to recover. As a peculiar icebreaker in the stage play mode, she begins to tell him her life story, from the first time she masturbated onwards. Invariably, moments of explicit sexuality follow (and Shia LaBoeuf’s penis, for those keeping score) as Joe strings the story of her burgeoning adulthood from encounter to encounter, beginning in earnest with an explicit competition of sexual one-upsmanship on a train.

As she moves though her history, Seligman, obviously von Trier’s proxy, interjects at points, gently admonishing her shame and relating her carnal encounters to Izaak Walton's 1653 poetry/prose hybrid “The Compleat Angler,” on which the rambling, parenthetical structure of Nymphomaniac is clearly based in part. Played with incredible acuity by Stacy Martin, young Joe meets many, many men on the her way to adulthood (and becoming Gainsburg in Volume II), including LaBoeuf, her love, and Christian Slater, who plays her father in the films slightly laggy poetic digressions. Though the film comes from a deeply entrenched female perspective, as do all of von Trier’s works, female interactions are thus far in short supply—Joe’s friend B, who unlocks her hedonistic sexuality, and her mother (played by SF resident Connie Neilsen) only really manifests once, as a “frigid bitch.”

It’s easy to pigeonhole Part I as self-indulgent, disconnected hogwash, especially considering von Trier’s recent track record (the yawn-inducing Melancholia, the scoff-inducing Antichrist), but to do so is a terrific failure to meet the film on its own level, something critics have been more than happy to do lately for blockbusters like The Avengers (Rotten Tomatoes: 92%), Spider-Man (Rotten Tomatoes: 89%), and their ilk. Lars von Trier, the brand, is well established at this point by all that know even a little bit about him as a boorish, crypto-sexist provocateur. He and his production company, Zentropa—which also produces some of the most well regarded female-centric pornography – know this about him and have turned his typical modus operandi almost inside out by promoting the film as one of the director’s careless shock-speriments while the real thing is something far more metered and poetic.

Uma Thurman’s show-stopping one-woman scene as the spurned wife of one of Joe’s conquests (undoubtedly one of the film’s best moments) may prove a harbinger of things to come with its unhinged female victim/tyrant breaking the plane of Volume I and directing all eyes to how placid the film’s surface can be. Especially in consideration of works like Gapar Noe’s Enter the Void, which before the last impossibly self-indulgent hour is almost a masterpiece, it’s hard not to wonder what outlandish and punishing scenarios await in Volume II, but if we let this segment stand alone, it's easily Von Trier’s most captivating, intelligent work, and a fine film in its own regard—not the big nasty bag of hammers we’ve been sold. It’s no misplaced irony that Joe’s chance at redemption mirrors von Trier’s own—let’s hope they don’t blow it. Bay Area Theatres, Rotten Tomatoes: 76%.

ALSO PLAYING:

Disposable Film Festival - Now in it's 7th year, the Bay's most popular-- and most fun – mini-fest kicks off today with its annual Castro screening of the best short and experimental films made around the world. A weekend of workshops, parties and seminars geared toward grooming and the next generation of "disposable" filmmakers follows. Opening Night at Castro. Runs March 20-23 around the city.

Repo: The Genetic Opera - "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" fans stand up! The once and future Giles (Anthony Steward Head) stars as the titular repo man in this insane (and insanely stupid) musical/gore mashup that aims to strike an uneasy truce between Marilyn Manson and Mary Poppins. Saturday midnight only, Clay. Rotten Tomatoes: 34%.

Child's Pose - In this Golden Bear winner, an imperious, overprotective mother fights to keep her 30-year old loser son out of prison after he's involved in a car accident. This tense thriller delves deep into the corruption of Eastern European politics, both personal and not. Opera Plaza. Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

Le Week-End Character eccentric par-excellence Jim Broadbent (Bridget Jones' Diary, Hot Fuzz) finally gets a chance to flex his dramatic lead chops in this highly British relationship comedy about a long-married couple on a trip to Paris. Will it end in restoration or resignation? Sundance Kabuki. Rotten Tomatoes: 91%.

Enemy - Before his runaway chiller Prisoners caught Oscar buzz last year, Canadian auteur Denis Villaneuve was known for provocative, tightly wound intellectual exercises. Here he returns to that tradition with an enigmatic tale of Jake Gyllenhaal meeting his menacing doppelgänger, a muscular biker. Based on a novel by Jose Saramago. Vogue Theater. Rotten Tomatoes: 76%.

Bad Words - Concerning a 40-year old jackass with a bad case of arrested development who hijacks a children's spelling bee, Jason Bateman's (Arrested Development) first directorial outing is a great deal funnier than any recent Apatow film, and features at least 10 times as many cute kids. It's a family film, if your kids are into cursing like sailors and no-strings-attached-sex (probably better not to ask). Bay Area Theaters. Rotten Tomatoes: 69%.