Whatever titillating things you've heard about Nymphomaniac, Vol. I, the latest provocation from Lars von Trier, don't listen. Sure, in a few scenes, you can see that the actors, all of whom are excellent, aren't faking it (a penetration here, some cunnilingus there). But there's relatively little sex, and von Trier shows only enough to give us (literally and figuratively) an idea. Then he considers the role sex plays in our emotional and psychological lives. His protagonist (Stacy Martin younger, Charlotte Gainsbourg older) tells her story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who's analytical, non-judgmental and often wise.
In his first two hours — another two (kinkier, it seems) will follow, in Vol. II — von Trier contemplates morality, sex, love, death, religion, art and more. It's a smörgåsbord of vignettes that could each become a separate movie, and sans its graphic sex, it's just a heady (if mannered) drama — equal parts psychology and pathology — and far more Bergmanic than Pasoliniesque.
Rare for von Trier, very little of Nymphomaniac is difficult to fathom or tolerate. When artists challenge us like this, we ought to pick up the gauntlet (or, in this case, take it off). To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: "I've never heard of something being done that I haven't considered doing myself." Discuss.