[18 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For nearly three decades now, Lars Von Trier has been stirring the cinematic pot. Be it with his deranged no-frills film foundation Dogme ‘95 or his Hitler “friendly” rants at Cannes, he is good at keeping his name in the press while avoiding any direct critical impact on his films. Indeed, even at his most controversial, he’s managed to make movies as stunning as Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark, and now, Nymphomaniac. While he’s always had a hand in his homeland’s burgeoning porn industry, his latest magnum opus (currently being released in two “volumes” with the first now available at such VOD sources as FlixFling) wants to delve beneath the surface and flesh to find the true meaning in physical copulation. This is beyond biology or instinct. It’s not about titillation or exploitation. Instead, von Trier clearly intends to use perversion and the profane to same something quite profound about the human condition and he succeeds.
The narrative is set up as a series of chapters, and once we meet our guides—title subject Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg in the present, Stacy Martin in flashback) and her “therapist,” a Good Samaritan named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård)—we also learn it will be a tale told via memory, misinformation, literary (and non-fictional) allusion, as well as our lead’s desire to paint herself as a horrible, sinful, and unworthy person. He discovers her lying in the middle of a back alley, bruised and beaten. She accepts his hospitality as well as his curious questions about her past. Joe walks Seligman through her initial discoveries of lust and desire. She explains losing her virginity to a local boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), a figure who will go on to play a prominent part in her early adventures as well as the seedy sex games she played with her best friend.
There’s a job setting where skill plays second fiddle to fooling around, the complications of keeping her numerous trysts organized, and the reality of ruined lives, as when the wife (Uma Thurman) and three small sons of a wayward husband come to confront Joe. Eventually, we learn of our heroine’s affection for her doctor father (Christian Slater), his eventual descent into madness, and the lasting impact Jerome has on her life. Seligman, on the other hand, ties Joe’s discoveries to such arcane subjects as Edgar Allan Poe, fly fishing, and polyphonic voices in music. Part One ends with our heroine discovering something horrible; after years of use, she no longer has feeling in her genitals.
Nymphomaniac is neither wholly provocative or subversively Puritanical. It doesn’t spell out a clear agenda while making sure we understand that there is more to this experience than the occasional hardcore sex acts. Yes, there is material here (even in the rated release currently making the rounds) that will raise mainstream eyebrows. We just aren’t used to up close acts of oral copulation, dozens of flaccid penises (in a hilarious montage discussing same), or XXX penetration. Supposedly, the unrated version is even more explicit, with those hoping to see some famous people fucking having to settle for clever F/X which places the faces of the known on the practiced bodies of some adult film professionals. As the title suggests, this is a movie about the act. However, Nymphomaniac glamorizes the syndrome as much as Melancholia did depression or Antichrist did grief.
Von Trier makes it clear that Joe’s journey is about power. It’s not about pleasure or providing it. Instead, once she learns the control contained between her legs, this character decides to demystify and deconstruct it. Hollywood would have our heroine shown in the throes of passion, he face a constant reminder that the multiples of partners she is with are only providing one clear thing, pleasure. But Nymphomaniac is not about fun. It’s about fear. It’s about physical need or want trumping common sense. Von Trier is one of the few filmmakers to treat sex addiction as just that. This isn’t some half-baked comedy where porn is just a playful substitute for some bro’s inability to commit. This filmmaker wants to understand compulsion, with Seligman doing his best within the many frames of reference he has. Some of the answers are beyond disquieting.
It has to be said that the opening half hour, filled with more fly fishing footage than in A River Runs Through It, is a bit confusing. We eventually get where Von Trier is going, but the journey is fraught with contradictory confessions. Similarly, LaBeouf’s Jerome is such a smug, arrogant jackass that we don’t understand the growing “love” Joe has for him. Far more meaningful are the moments with Slater, idealized as the Dad who will come to create some of his daughter’s unclear desires. He’s never inappropriate, but this is obviously a subject suffering through some curious father issues. The best moment here, however, is when Thurman shows up as the cheated-on spouse. Without going into complete scenery chewing mode, she delivers a strong denouncement of her husband and this waif-like other woman before taking her pain and departing. It’s a benchmark moment in the film.
With its vignette-oriented approach and “to be continued” contrivance, Nymphomaniac is far more enigmatic than erotic. Young Stacy Martin is naked throughout most of her time onscreen and her barely legal logistics will leave many moviegoers uneasy. In fact, the film is far more interested in the aftermath of sex than what it feels like during. By having Joe there, explaining herself to a man who is clearly trying to make connections, Von Trier provides his audience with easy access into a closed and complicated world. It will be interesting to see where he takes this material, where his heroine’s sudden paralysis takes her next. Similarly, since we know that Gainsbourg has done little except narrate her character’s tale, what happens to her personally as the adult Joe becomes equally intriguing. Even with his name above the title, many believed Lars Von Trier was out to legitimize the lewd with Nymphomaniac. Instead, he’s retained his intelligence while stripping his subject’s sexual content of all its filth and fascination.