[4 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When last we left Lars von Trier’s epic exploration of one woman’s unwieldy sexuality and all the perverted permutations of same, our heroine Joe (as an adult, Charlotte Gainsbourg, as a youth, Stacy Martin) had just lost all sensation in her vagina. As she recounts her underage exploits and various home wrecking scenarios, including the sudden loss of sensation while living with the longtime object of her desires, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), our attentive listener, a bookworm named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), links her lust-life to various works of literature and cultural/personal milestones. Before going forward, dealing with her life as an adult, the duo discuss religion, especially the differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. For Seligman, it’s a question of Christ’s suffering vs. Christ’s mercy. For Joe, it’s just another nonsensical analogy to her continuing condemnation of self.
Indeed, if Part 1 of this epic exploration of human physicality and the psychological inability to control it was centering around discovery, Part 2 is all about the fallout. If you wondered where the real consequences were in Joe’s seemingly scattered actions, the last two hours here present them in vivid, sometimes vile intimacy. At first, Jerome tries to help his new partner. She even gives birth to a boy in hopes that domesticity will cure what ails her. When that doesn’t work, Joe starts experimenting. She picks up a couple of African immigrants and tries to have sex with them. Then she becomes involved with a polite for-pay sadomasochist (Jamie Bell) who unleashes her dormant pleasures through intense pain. When that comes to a conclusion, she begins working for a mob enforcer (Willem Dafoe), using her particular “talents” to get clients to pay. Eventually, she reluctantly takes on a protégé (Mia Goth) though all roads seem to lead right back to Jerome.
Once again, our story is divided into chapters. Once again, our lessons are legitimized by some kind of equating subject matter. Again, we can see that Von Trier is trying to tie one’s inner life with events outside it. We first deal with religion. Then the mirror (read: self-reflection) becomes the subject, mostly through a short stint in job-ordered group therapy. Finally, the proper use of a handgun is featured, meaning we are headed for some kind of tragedy, though how it plays out is more or less a surprise. Thanks to some shoddy Western reasoning, perhaps believing that few would sit through an over four hour dissertation on sometimes sleazy sexual issues, we experience everything in pieces.
Unfortunately, watching the film itself, and both parts both together and separately, the notion of dividing Nymph()maniac up is significantly flawed. By parsing events along age, by featuring Joe almost exclusively as a narrator in Part One, and as participant in Part Two, the end result is almost too bifurcated. The second half is no less effective, but when viewed together, we get a more powerful experience, especially during a key moment when Joe goes back over all the symbols Seligman has used to offset her story.
It’s a tale that rarely deviates from what we’ve heard before. During the initial discussion about the Church, the whole notion of suffering vs. mercy is painted in particularly harsh terms. While Jerome struggles to get Joe to care, especially once their little baby is born, she heads off to find an even more histrionic source of release. Her meet up with some incredibly well endowed African immigrants is one of the funniest sequences Von Trier has put on film, a pair of raging hard-ons bopping in and out of frame as our heroine decides to bail on her decision. The material with Jamie Bell is more difficult to take. We get a sequence of accidental genital mutilation that’s very tough to look at and his character is so cold and distant that we never understand his impetus—outside of money—for doing what he does.
The amateur psychiatrists out there will argue that von Trier too easily makes the leap from deviate to criminal conduct here, Joe expanding her reach to teach unwilling male debtors that sex can indeed be a powerful weapon. These sequences, again some of the more humorous material in the entire two partner, appear to give our heroine a bit of hope. She is very good at this non-traditional “job” and can’t stand the idea of having someone “shadow” her for the future. In fact, it is the inclusion of the young girl, and her sad story, which is Part Two’s Achilles Heel. We don’t like the child, though we do pity her horrid home life. Once she starts sharing Joe’s bed, however, we can tell this will all end badly.
Then Jerome reappears, and you can tell that von Trier has planned this all along. As the man who took Joe’s virginity (and by default, innocent), he will become the man who takes her soul as well. On the other hand, it’s clear that Seligman is also partially responsible for her eventual downfall. By digging beneath the surface, by trying to make sense of what her actions indicate, he strips Joe of her last attempt at true redemption. One gets the impression that, because of her permissive father and failed early home life, this woman needs someone to “straighten her out” circa Jamie Bell’s character (albeit, not so violently or graphically). Without any discipline—not necessary for sexual release—Joe appears destined to die as she lived, constantly seeking answers to something she can’t quite understand or control. Her self-condemnation, meant to find meaning in her actions, only ends up spurring those around her to further cloud the issue.
Quite philosophical for a film supposedly overflowing with fucking, huh? As with most of his efforts, von Trier’s take on nymphomania is not new, but it is presented in a fresh and fascinating new light. It’s the same with his look at a marriage in free fall (Antichrist) and a psychologically complex sibling rivalry (Melancholia). Nymph()maniac, in parts or as one massive whole, continues this tradition. Beyond his outbursts, his public proclivities and moments of misguided joking, Lars von Trier remains a true auteur. He has a particular vision and has spend the last few decades deciphering and redefining it. He’s never gone commercial, or sold out, so to speak. Instead, he rankles the mainstream by making the movies he wants, the way he wants. Even with all its XXX gimmickry, Nymph()maniac remains grounded in character. From someone like von Trier, we’d expect nothing less… and we get a lot more.