Everything leading up to Nymphomaniac—its extremely graphic, heavy metal-filled trailer, the posters featuring the actors miming orgasms—has made it out to be an intense and highly provocative film. While Volume I, the first half of the two-part film to hit theaters, doesn’t shy away from the gratuitous sex promised by the film’s title, viewers may be surprised to find just how weirdly funny the film is.
It begins with the bloodied and bruised Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) being discovered by an elderly stranger, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Seligman takes Joe in to care for her, prompting a long, unending conversation about Joe’s growth into a “nymphomaniac” and her various sexual escapades, which structures the rest of the film’s plot. Joe repeatedly pleads with Seligman to judge her for her promiscuity, but Seligman only responds by intellectualizing her sexual experiences through overwrought, mostly unrelated metaphors: a story about picking up strangers on a train leads Seligman to notice the similarity between Joe’s sexual practices and fly fishing. In another instance, Seligman remarks that the number of humps Joe received while losing her virginity corresponds to the Fibonacci sequence.
It’s never quite clear to what extent the film is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. In one scene, the wife (played incredibly by Uma Thurman) of a man Joe’s been sleeping with arrives at Joe’s apartment, children in tow. The scene walks a fine border between an absurdist comedy and a discomforting dram; a high-point finds Thurman asking Joe, “Would it be alright if I showed the children the whoring bed?” The viewer is left mostly confused: is the whole movie just a joke? What exactly is going on here?
It’s tough to answer that at this point, because Nymphomaniac Volume I is really only half a film. But, even if the first installment might be a largely puzzling movie without its companion piece, it’s still a deeply engaging—and funny—work, well worth seeing in theaters.