And so, Nymphomaniac; or is it Nymph()maniac? There are more than just cosmetic reasons for the latter to count as the actual title, since the dividing line between nymph and maniac is even more important to the film's project than the fact that an open parenthesis followed directly by a close parenthesis looks in the vaguest possible way like a vagina. But Nymp()maniac is cumbersome to type out and a bit pretentious so I will, not without regret, let it go.

At any rate, the film is the latest project by international cinema's most important and reliable provocateur, initially came to us in the form of two volumes of about two hours each that debuted, with all possible showiness, on Christmas Day in 2013 in Denmark, before the director's preferred cut surfaced piecemeal over 2014. And it is this longer cut, coming to a total just shy of five and a half hours, that we shall be considering now. For Antagony & Ecstasy believes in honoring artistic intent, even in the case of artists who we do not much care for.

I will say this much for Nymphomaniac, though: it wasn't nearly as diabolically unpleasant as I was prepared for it to be. It finds von Trier in a surprisingly overt comic mode; for those of us accustomed to viewing most of his films with a dispirited "he has got to be kidding, right?" reaction, this is the film where he pretty clearly admits that he is. The film takes the shape of a memoir in eight chapters, narrated by a middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, reigning von Trier muse) to the older Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård, reliable von Trier mainstay), the man who found her bloody and bedraggled in an alley by his home one snowy night. The story is about her life as a nymphomaniac, ever since the fateful day she began to perceive her own sexuality; "I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old" begins her narrative, delivered over a shot of a bare-chested toddler staring down out of the frame, because Lars von Trier does not believe in starting slowly. For the rest of the night, Joe tells Seligman of her lost virginity to the dashing Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who is in and out of her life forever after); her teenage adventures in casual sex (Stacy Martin takes over for the pre-30 version of Joe); the way that having sex constantly with a broad variety of men came to dominate her young adulthood; the crisis that happened when she lost all feeling in her clitoris and began to seek out more extreme ways of coming to orgasm; and eventually her career as a mob extortionist. And in all of this, we see so, so much genitalia.

But the real purpose of Joe's tale isn't to convince Seligman that she's insatiably addicted to sex, but to convince him that she is a morally unjust person, and therein lies the comedy. Throughout her long recitation (which increasingly seems to be made up, Usual Suspects-style, of the things that come into her head while she sits in Seligman's empty rooms - not a reading the film insists upon, but certainly one it welcomes), the action frequently reverts back to the two of them sitting across from each other, with Joe asking some variation on "didn't that bit completely offend, shock, titillate, or disgust your?" to which her audience responds with labored theoretical frameworks justifying her behavior. First, he eagerly compares her sexual hunting to his own beloved hobby of fly-fishing, and by the time dawn roles around, he'll also have dragged into polyphonic theory and the history of the Eastern Orthodox church, among many other random tangents. Eventually even Joe seems to find him fatuous and boring and over-written.

These cutaways with Seligman offering baroque readings of Joe's life are, for one thing, the funniest part of a movie that's often prone to going for weird comedy rather than the sober drama of most of von Trier's work, especially in the first three hours. For another thing, it doesn't take knowing that the director has basically admitted that he views the women in his films as his authorial stand-ins to realise that we're watching Joe-as-von-Trier trying to provoke Seligman-as-film-critics, with Joe's life including several obvious references to the director's past work, whether in images or plot points, and even to the details of his public life; there's even time to have a chat about the morality of the Nazis, recalling the most famous controversy of von Trier's career. Through the characters' dynamic, von Trier is both repeating his claims to telling something important and challenging that must be said, and also asking, somewhat aghast, "do you people actually buy this shit I'm selling?"

Which, for as impenetrably self-regarding as that it is, it definitely gives Nymphomaniac a peculiar goofiness that makes it far more watchable than the story of yet another woman mortifying herself to find transcendence ought to be, especially at such a monstrous running time. And, throughout, Nymphomaniac also reverts to more traditional von Trier territory: there is much that is visceral and angry, whether the melodrama of a spurned wife (Uma Thurman, in a disorienting, almost cartoonish depiction of rage that's perhaps the film's single best performance); or the frequent explicit sex scenes in which there is no hint of eroticism, only the compulsive movement of mechanical beings; or what has to be the most gut-wrenching abortion scene in cinema history. Or the atrocious final scene, a violation of all character and story logic that exists, as far as I can tell, solely for von Trier to laugh at us on the way out of the theater, having ruined anything resembling a character or thematic arc across the whole immense beast of a movie.

In all of its modes - self-regarding, absurdly comic, clinically unsexy, violently distressing - Nymphomaniac never quite gets around to justifying the why of all this. Any insights into human interaction, sexual behavior, or gender politics are filtered through so much visually staginess and tonal insincerity that they hardly feel authentic in any way; the film is so long, repetitive, and predictable in its arch-European sexual chilliness that it doesn't even work as a provocation. It makes outrageous sex look absolutely tedious, and while I am sure there are those who would be shocked and outraged by this, and whose prudishness would thus give the film some merit as a "gotcha!" exercise, they wouldn't ever end up watching it. Besides, the idle emotional punishments von Trier ladles out on his characters for the sexuality is prudish enough on its own.

Essentially, it's a hollow plaster cast of a movie, acerbically funny enough to give it some personality, but devoid of any real meaning; it is an artificial construct of suffering than hardly feels painful even when we're watching it, an exercise in watching the director demonstrate once again that he can push buttons, even as he announces right there in the dialogue that he's just pushing out buttons for the hell of it. There are plenty of impressive shots throughout, some comic, some moving, some astonishing; and the way sound is used (especially the way it gives the film a broad structure) is clever, though the songs that crop on the soundtrack frequently are virtually never anything but obvious and dopey. So it's not poor cinema. And it's certainly varied enough that even as slow as it moves and as long as it lasts, it never feels pokey. But it's self-referential and self-rewarding to the point that it has virtually no other content. Although, in a film with this many close-ups of human orifices, I suppose it makes sense that the film basically takes place up Lars von Trier's ass.