Von Trier, as always, wants to provoke and titillate. He also has a lot to say. But as graphic as Nymphomaniac: Volume I is, Von Trier still does far more telling than showing. The picture isn’t nearly as rich and complex as his previous two, the brutal, gorgeous nature-poetry epic Antichrist and the sadder, sweeter Melancholia. The ideas he puts into the mouth of his chief spokesperson, the narrator Joe, aren’t as profound as he seems to think they are. “Basically, we’re all waiting for permission to die,” she says late in the film. Of course we are: By that point, we understand that what we’ve just watched is an exploration of despair, isolation, and the sexual impulse as a tool of survival and self-annihilation. But the movie isn’t about anything more than the things it says it’s about. Sex is mysterious; Nymphomaniac isn’t.

On the other hand, the beautifully restored Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is all strange, shivery pleasure. Robert Wiene’s 1920 chiller about a mad scientist (Werner Krauss) who keeps a murderous sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) as a pet is all oblique angles and charcoal slashes – it’s hard to say if it’s more effective as a feat of storytelling or a piece of design. The organ score Zorn has composed for the film, a magnificent constellation of dots, dashes and long tones, sounds both modern and primeval at once. It’s as if Zorn were using a special Morse code, a pattern of aural Art Deco zigs and zags, to summon the wisdom of the ancients. When Cesare the somnambulist first opens his eyes – black-rimmed and unblinking, they’re the windows of a soulless soul – the ribbon of sound Zorn draws from the keyboard is like the low, villainous hum of a power line. It’s a sound that could keep you awake all night – and for just a moment, you feel the benumbed pain of a character who’s doomed to sleep his life away.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Joe in Nymphomaniac: Volume 1
Charlotte Gainsbourg is Joe in Nymphomaniac: Volume 1


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