I attended the noon screening of Lars Von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac, Volume One with my soul and spirit engaged, but it wasn’t long before I began to feel vaguely anesthetized and zoned out.

This explicit first portion of the 5 and 1/2 hour Nymphomaniac (which will probably be unveiled in its entirety at next May’s Cannes Film Festival) is an intelligent, jaggedly assembled, dispassionate wank that aims to provoke and intellectually arouse with an assortment of classroom observations about a young girl’s scientific, emotionally arid approach to compulsive sexuality, but without anyone (including audience members) getting off or feeling serene for the experience.

Metaphors about fly fishing and the shapes of leaves abound, but libidinal stirrings are not on the table.

Stacy Martin in Lars Von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac.

I guess I should give Von Trier credit for having achieved this peculiar synthesis. A dry, ironic tone does contribute to a series of faintly satiric philosophical points, and an assortment of explicit sex depictions are made to seem quite clinical and occasionally tedious, and vaguely repellent from an emotional/spiritual standpoint. Deliberately, I mean.

For this is a meandering, discursive, tension-free wankathon that I’m now vaguely associating in my head with Dusan Makavejev‘s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (’71). I saw it on VHS too long ago to remember much, but I’ve read enough reviews to know that W.R. was generally regarded as somewhere between a put-on and cinematic nerve gas. Despite enthusiastic arias that festival dweebs may be writing about Von Trier’s film as we speak, Nymphomaniac, Volume One definitely lives up to the W.R. challenge.

I felt faintly amused at times (although not enough to join those sitting near me who were chuckling and chortling) but then eventually bored. It was obvious that I was supposed to be stimulated and tickled and engaged by the metaphorical allusions and all the bright-fellow metaphors and witty uses of classroom-instruction design overlay, but all I did was sink deeper and deeper into disengagement and despair. Because it was all so fucking dry and neutered and instructive.

I have now seen an ambitious, critically respected film by a top-tier filmmaker in which a 20-something actress (the fetching if somewhat opaque Stacy Martin) delivers a convincing impression of her character giving a full disassociative blowjob to a middle-aged, well-dressed businessman in a first-class train compartment, complete with a closeup of a squirting schlongstuffer and a creamy facial or lip lube of sorts, and…what did I feel? What was I thinking? What was Von Trier thinking or intending? Less than you might presume on all counts.

The idea behind Nymphomaniac (or so it seemed as I sat there with my lids at half-mast) is to disassociate and detonate the innumerable cultural connections between sex and love that we’re all been carrying around in various forms for most of our lives, or since we got into our mid teens and began listening to pop tunes and began buying into the mythology and theology of how love and sexual desire are romantically interspliced. But no — love is mostly just “sex plus jealousy,” to go by one line of Nymphomaniac dialogue.

Call me full of merd but this, I suspect, is the main thematic intent — to relentlessly talk you out of any sense of arousal about images of clitoral juices and erections and ram ruttings while pushing a vibe of chilly self-analysis.

What Nymphomaniac does, in fact, is intellectually de-eroticize the story of Joe, a dispassionate 50something sex-addict (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) who is found lying bruised and semi-conscious in a back alley by a kindly older fellow (Stellan Skarsgard), and who tells this Good Samaritan her life story as she lies in his guest bed and sips something hot from a bowl. And then the reenactments begin with Martin as young Joe, and it’s off to the races, my friends. But the races haven’t much of a pulse. Von Trier’s plan, again, is to drain the narrative blood out of a life of bloodless sex, and to discuss and intellectualize the shit out of everything until you feel drained of all life yourself.

Von Trier hasn’t bungled the job. He’s a brilliant guy who has presumably made the film he wanted to make. I only know that as I watched I felt as if a drug of some kind was slipping into my system, a form of cinematic Xanax, and that the longer it went on the more I was succumbing to this influence.

Some of the musical passages are almost stunningly banal. Von Trier actually uses Dmitri Shostakovich‘s “Waltz No. 2”, which everyone remembers from Stanley Kubrick‘s Eyes Wide Shut, and, to emphasize or underline the sexually brazen spirit of youth, Steppenwolf‘s “Born To be Wild.” Which proves beyond a shadow of doubt that there’s a point at which musical sampling devolves into plain laziness.

There’s a fast-paced montage of mostly uncircumsized European dicks that’s so repulsive I had to shield my eyes. I haven’t felt this traumatized since my aborted visit to that Los Angeles health club last October (i.e., “Nightmare on Mariposa“).

One scene I quite like is the finale, a bout of gymnastic sex between Martin and Shia LaBeouf with still more sword-swallowing. It ends with Martin declaring that she feels nothing, that her nerve endings and sense of openness and/or receptivity have shut down and that she’s now on the path than will lead her to becoming Gainsbourgh in a decade or two and ending up in that semi-conscious state with those bruises in that back alley as Skarsgard comes along. I enjoyed the decisiveness of this finale, and the fact that it feels like a kind of cliffhanger.

I’ll see Nymphomaniac, Volume Two, of course, but I’m a lot less interested in this whole enterprise now than I was this morning before the lights went down.