"It's my own fault," says Joe, the heroine of Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac: Volume I." We first see her lying bloody and unconscious in a back alley, though we don't yet know why. Her explanation: "I'm just a bad human being."
It's the first sign that despite this movie's titillating title, graphic sex and the novel sight of Shia LaBeouf in the altogether, "Nymphomaniac" will not offer much pleasure. Joe, played first as a willowy teen by a beguiling Stacy Martin, then as a soul-sick adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg, has spent a lifetime pursuing sexual satisfaction, but joy and even mere physical sensation elude her. "I've never met a bad human being," says her rescuer, a monkish bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). As he listens without judgment, Joe recounts her life story.
Joe seems unaware that her character is a composite -- libertine, deviant, problematic patient -- drawn from a wide range of sexual literature, so it's up to Seligman, essentially von Trier's mouthpiece, to put her in context. He first plays Freud, sleuthing for clues in her childhood (Christian Slater plays her doting father). Then, like the Marquis de Sade, Seligman sees a fiendish algebra in her sexuality, pointing out that her roughneck lover Jerome (a half-convincing LaBeouf) is pounding out the Fibonacci sequence. Elsewhere, Seligman echoes the born-for-pleasure ethos of Giacomo Casanova himself, saying simply, "If you have wings, why not fly?"
Von Trier ("Melancholia," "Antichrist") brings dry humor to the movie's mix of crude language, anatomical close-ups and erudite sexual metaphors: Fly-fishing, Bach fugues and even parallel parking are accompanied by on-screen diagrams and other visual aids. Out of nowhere comes a moment of thrilling drama when Mrs. H, an abandoned wife played by a dynamite Uma Thurman, brings her children to view Joe's "whoring bed." It's the film's most traditional but most compelling sequence, the only time von Trier taps into recognizable human emotions.
The end of Volume I feels a bit like filmus interruptus, a long run-up to a coherent point that we can only hope will be made. The closing credits reveal several clips of "Volume II," which contains even more extreme and violent sexual content.
PLOT The story of a woman whose sexual appetites threaten to consume her. Unrated.
CAST Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård
BOTTOM LINE Highly explicit, but more intellectual than erotic. Music, math and sex make an intriguing jumble of ideas, though coherence may not appear until "Volume II."