In 2000, the electronic dance music artist who calls herself Peaches recorded a song that for purposes of this review we'll call "Fornicate the Pain Away." The directness of its message -- the actual song uses a verb other than "fornicate" -- appealed to filmmakers as well as to clubgoers, and it has been placed in numerous movies and television programs, often as a humorous or sorrowful commentary on a character's actions.
It's tempting to suggest that writer-director Lars von Trier, in his sexual odyssey "Nymphomaniac," requires four hours to say what Peaches said in four minutes (plus eight seconds). Von Trier's title character, Joe -- played as a teenager and young adult by lovely and courageous newcomer Stacy Martin, and as our bruised and battered adult narrator by Charlotte Gainsbourg -- is addicted to lust, but she hardly ever seems happy, even when she's wearing shiny red plastic hot pants and seducing train commuters in a count-the-conquests contest with her best friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark).
Since age 7, Joe has felt "completely alone in the universe," she confesses to the apparent Good Samaritan (Stellan Skarsgaard) who offers the beaten woman a cup of tea and a novel body part, his ear. Joe describes loneliness as "my constant companion... as if my whole body was filled with loneliness and tears." Who else is this sad? Emily Watson in von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" (1996), perhaps, or Bjork in von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" (2000). When Joe comments on being "alone in the universe," von Trier cuts to an image of nebulae and stars; one imagines the planet Melancholia among those lights, coasting toward Earth to overwhelm and destroy it, as happened in von Trier's previous film, "Melancholia" (2012), in which Kirsten Dunst was the most inconsolable to date of the director's doomed, damaged heroines.
If "provocauteur" isn't a word, it ought to be, at least in reference to von Trier, the fiftysomething enfant terrible of Danish cinema and persona non grata of the Cannes Film Festival (thanks to some unwelcome Nazi jokes) whose value as an auteur generates contentious debate but whose genius as a provocateur, marketer and self-promoter is beyond doubt. As a two-part sexually explicit movie, "Nymphomaniac" may not be an easy sell, but von Trier knows few companies would take a chance on a four-hour movie titled "Depression."