April 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Nymphomaniac' an odd, disturbing tale of one woman's obsession

Stacy Martin, right, plays the younger version of the main character in 'Nymphomaniac: Vol. I' with Sophie Kennedy Clark. (Magnolia Pictures)

“Nymphomaniac: Vol I” is crazy. It’s funny, it’s lewd, it’s disturbing, it’s odd, it’s extremely graphic, it’s brutal. And if you can handle all that, it’s pretty good.

No, good is too simple a word. It’s fascinating. While still being all those other things.

Written and directed by the always purposely controversial Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Antichrist,” “Melancholia”), “Vol. I” will be followed in a couple of weeks with “Vol. II,” which is, in essence, the completion of one massive film that few psyches would be able to endure in its entirety.

In “Vol. I,” a professorial type named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, von Trier’s muse) severely beaten in an alley. When she declines any help from authorities, he takes her back to his apartment to tend to her.

After receiving a cup of tea, Joe decides to tell Seligman her life story in chapters. And her story is she’s been a nymphomaniac most of her life, completely preoccupied with sex and obsessed with her body. She begins as a child, then moves into young adulthood — the young adult Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin with an oddly appropriate blankness — as Seligman listens, asks questions and wrestles with the morality of it all.

The tales Joe tells are invariably explicit, but Seligman reacts to them with odd allegories involving fly fishing, mathematics and organ music. Joe describes her father (Christian Slater), her first lover Jerome (Shia LaBeouf with a ridiculous accent), her many, many, many subsequent lovers.

A betrayed wife (Uma Thurman) goes mad before her, Jerome keeps popping up in strange twists, her father falls ill, and still all Joe can think to do is have sex.

Von Trier is certainly going somewhere with all this, but he doesn’t get all the way there until “Vol. 2.” “Vol. 1” is more a series of shocks and giggles, an observation of obsession, both terribly sad and terribly weird. Which is precisely what you expect from von Trier: the unexpected, brought somehow to a strange boil.

'Nymphomaniac: Vol I'

GRADE: B+

Not rated

Running time: 118 minutes

tlong@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

More Tom Long