Controversial director Lars von Trier promoted his adult art house film "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" by creating posters from photographs of his actors captured during moments of sexual ecstasy.
That's probably more gratification than most others will gain from von Trier's Debbie Downer of a drama, a mad, brave but self-indulgent merger of hard-core sexual imagery with artistic pretense.
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A middle-aged intellectual named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a bloodied, beaten woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) near his house. He brings her inside and tends to her wounds while she regales him with the story of her sexual history as a nymphomaniac, played as a very young woman by newcomer Stacy Martin.
"I'm a bad person," the adult Joe says. But the man disputes this, and proceeds to draw astute parallels between her "catching" men and the arts of fly-fishing and music composition.
This is never less than amusing to hear the man and woman discuss graphic sex with philosophy and personal fulfillment (imagine something like "My Dinner With Andrea the Nympho") particularly when the dialogue drops into affected prose such as, "I've always demanded more from the sunset!"
Young Martin's emotionally neutral performance is the fly in von Trier's ointment here. Is Joe a mere sex addict? A feminist warrior using sex and men for her own purposes? Martin seems utterly bored by her existence and actions, even when interacting with her sick father (Christian Slater) and being deflowered by Shia LaBeouf's motorcycle geek who treats Joe like a carburetor in need of a tuneup.
Kudos to Uma Thurman, who hijacks the whole film with her razor-sharp performance as a miffed wife lashing out at Joe for "stealing" a husband she doesn't even want.
Von Trier's original four-hour film has been split into two parts ("Nymphomaniac Vol. II" opens April 4.), Vol. 1 opens this weekend at the Century Centre in Chicago. Not rated, for mature audiences. Contains brief, hard-core sex scenes. 117 minutes. ★ ★ ½