Lars von Trier's Not So Manic 'Nymphomaniac'

by Emily Collins

29 June 2017

Much to my surprise, Von Trier’s provocation in the Nymphomaniac films is neither abhorrent nor bawdy.
Stacy Martin as Young Joe (IMDB) 
cover art

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin

2013

cover art

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II

Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin

2013

While overhearing my colleagues discussing the new Lars von Trier release four years ago I became vaguely familiar with the premise of the film, thinly formed an opinion and subsequently approached it with distaste. Profoundly naïve, my snobbish desire for quality and purity in the arts prevented me from seeing Nymphomaniac Volume I and II in theaters. More specifically, the inner dilemma I was experiencing surrounded the issue of its seriousness and credibility, questioning the difference between art and porn. The length and content appeared both daunting and bawdy. After all, I was by no means interested in watching over five hours of undiluted sex on screen.

Originally one long super-film, Nymphomaniac was split into two volumes to accommodate film festivals and commercial release. The film serves as the third segment to von Trier’s unofficial “Depression Trilogy”, preceded by Anti-Christ and Melancholia. With a prolific career spanning several decades garnering many awards, von Trier is an internationally recognized director celebrated for his stylistic avant-garde approach to cinema fused with controversial and provocative subject-matter, all of which I am a fan. However, in this case I assumed he had gone too far.

From the opening, the film is gradual and melancholy, a tone that I very much approve. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the lead character, Joe, and through episodic flashbacks tells the stranger that found her beaten and laying in the middle of the road (Seligman, is played by well-known Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård), the story of her life. Joe contextualizes the state in which she was found and the immense guilt and shame that she is battling within from being a nymphomaniac.

These flashbacks take us through her life from childhood to adolescence, into early adulthood and her middle-aged present. In this sequence, a variety of actresses are employed to portray the younger versions of Gainsbourg. In these events that marked her life, we see the appearance of well-known actors Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater and Willem Dafoe. Single letters are used to label characters rather than full names, creating anonymity and authenticity. Simultaneously, the use of letters alludes to a childlike playfulness and simplicity, easing the tension in the scenes of intercourse, adultery, and envy. Joe presents the whirlwind of events in chronological orders and divides them into chapters, “The Compleat Angler”, “Mrs. H”, “Delirium”, “The Mirror”, “The Gun” and others. This organization and structure dismantles the chaotic and crazed sex scenes that I had anticipated, and I slowly felt at ease.

Through countless digressions in the recollection of her tale, historical and cultural references are rendered and explored by both characters from opposing viewpoints, a self-condemning sexual deviant and a flat asexual virgin, the latter which is only admitted towards the film’s end. These detours offer an intellectual component to the film. Seligman’s stories are heavily weighted towards mythological parables and philosophical anecdotes in an attempt to validate Joe’s actions. The religious references he makes compliment the spiritual undertones that exist within Joe’s early incidences of sexual enlightenment. She recounts her sexual self-discovery as a young girl as if overcome by a miraculous force within, marked by aesthetic scenes of nature; melodic rustling of the leaves and shimmering strands of sunlight.

The depiction of Joe’s relationships from a child until present can be easily subjected to social and psychological analysis. Her relationship with her mother is bizarrely distant and full of contempt, while the admiration and affection for her father is pure and sincere. Her friendship with “B” begins in playful competition exploiting their sexual conquests to a quick and easy parting of ways when personal values and ideals concerning love and sex are challenged. Joe is highly against and terrified of romantic love.

In reexamining the film in a current cultural context, the misfit casting of Shia LaBeouf as Jerôme, the only character that Joe shows any semblance of feelings of romantic love, is even more distinct. He’s recently making headlines by reconfiguring himself in the art world as a contemporary performative artist and political activist. This positions the film in an air of intrigue for an alternative viewing demographic, that of his new following and the contemporary art world.

Although at times mesmerized by the softness and elegance in the musical score, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s soothing voice and the monochromatic palette, by the time we enter Volume II a sentiment of disconnect and faded novelty ensues. Volatility, sadism, an AA-meeting, and much more is introduced, creating a sense of apprehension and obligation, compared to the lighter and experimental Volume I. Personally, the first volume is preferred.

The unsettling ending of the film potentially revokes the progress and development from the previous five and a half cathartic hours for Joe. Nymphomaniac closes with Joe’s story coming to an end and Seligman once again attempting to offer consolation. Finally feeling slightly at ease and after these many hours of telling her story, Joe decides to shut her eyes and sleep. In pitch black, Seligman sneaks back into the room and attempts to rape Joe. She objects while he tries to validate his actions but Joe quickly grabs a gun on the nightstand and shoots him. Roll the credits. Audiences are left feeling rather perplexed, to say the least.

The film teeters toward the extreme and ridiculous at times: scenes such as Joe as a child sliding on the wet tiled bathroom floor out of a naïve sexual curiosity; her self-inflicted mentally-stimulated orgasm that occurs in the moment her father passes and; the threesome with men who don’t speak English that she picked up off the street, can be considered fairly unrealistic for the average adventurer. The montage of penises is presented in the most serene and delicate way that one could with such imagery. Nevertheless, the clear structure combined with the cultural and psychological elements creates a pleasing not-so-manic nymphomaniac experience. Von Trier’s provocation is neither abhorrent nor bawdy. It is at times a bit cold but undoubtedly fearless and indulgent.

Over the years, while living and studying abroad, as well as employment in public arts institutions, my “narrow-mindedness” toward this kind of art has significantly subsided. That is to say, after finally viewing the film, and desensitizing myself through its repetition several times within the first month, or simply “growing up”, I now have come to quite enjoy Nymphomaniac. Though, this might stand in bias on account of an affinity I have towards Gainsbourg, her personal history and familial complexities as well as her chic masculine style. Nevertheless, as seen behind my round over-sized eyelgasses, I continue to praise and recommend Nymphomaniac to others who have the same initial aversion.

The film is often cited as being about “the sexual awakening of a young woman”, which indeed it is, but I propose that it is much more than that, though I have yet to figure out what that exactly is… An “anti-erotic satire”? A poetically presented psychological study? If you don’t feel like spending five and half hours introducing yourself to the stylistic wonders of Lars von Trier, a brief but powerful glimpse can be found in the anthology commissioned for the 60th Anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. Consisting of three-minute films by 36 directors titled Chacun son Cinéma (2007), translating in English as To Each His Own Cinema, von Trier’s contribution titled, Occupations, is anything but… subtle.

Emily Collins is a Master of Arts graduate in Arts and Heritage: Policy, Management and Education from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Prior, she studied Comparative Literature and Culture. Formally, she works for a public arts institution in Canada. She is working on crafting and refining her freelance writing and critiquing skills. She will be entering a Master of Arts in Cinema and Media Studies in the coming year.

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