You’ll have to get past, way past, the innuendo in order to read this one. But it is about sex, not drug rehab.
This is a story about the birds and the bees…and insects. I’m referring to Nymphomaniac, avant cinema provocateur Lars Von Trier’s last installment of what’s dubbed the “depression trilogy” (the other films are Antichrist and Melancholia). If you’ve heard anything about this controversial 4-hour, Volume I & II epic (apparently 5 hours in its uncut version), then you’re likely aware of the explicit sex scenes, the use of digital compositing to superimpose the genitals of porn actors over those of the film’s actors. You may be less aware of its dense symbolism, thematic complexity, and stridently taboo outlook.
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, the self-loathing title character, discovered beaten and bruised in the film’s opening scene by a diffident, scholarly recluse, Seligman, played by Stellen Skarsgard. Refusing either medical attention or help from police, Joe accepts Seligman’s hospitality, returning to his humble home, a sparse, shabby room, wherein she can rest, recuperate and, as it turns out, tell the long confessional story of her self-proclaimed nymphomania. From the outset, Joe makes it clear that she is ashamed of her sexuality, saying she has callously used people throughout her life, and that she therefore deserves the brutality she has endured. Seligman listens intently with a combination of sympathy and detachment—less a confessor than an analyst. No solution-focus in his repertoire. Still, he confronts Joe’s self-loathing, challenging with intellectual arguments that compare Joe’s behavior to that of an immature insect (the definition of a nymph, for viewers who don’t know). He also weaves in references to mathematics and religion, and in so doing, becomes a comic counterpoint to Joe’s compulsive hedonism, and also an unlikely listener. He is a forgotten kind of neutral: not only “non-judgmental”, he is a virgin, perhaps a eunuch.
Anyway, Joe seems to trust him, though she is irritated by his tangential curiosity in academic versus taboo or sensual matters. She attempts an argument that she is evil. His rebuttal is a proclamation of what is merely natural. Thus, Seligman is undisturbed by the story of Joe’s once teenage competition with a rival to see how many anonymous sexual conquests can be made on a train. As she recounts one presumably disturbing sexual episode after another, he maintains his cool, non-judgmental stance, ever keeping the horror at bay, ever blocking an imagined audience’s shock. The character of Seligman seems like a stand-in for Von Trier: fascinated, but rebutting society’s finger-wagging, defending sex. However, Joe is a tough, complicated patient/penitent. Her shame is powerful, but so too are her defenses. In Volume I, we learn of her “pact” with peers that entails the rejection of love. The compulsion to act out sexually is integrated into a philosophy that normalizes exploitation and quietly justifies an ongoing and progressive habit. In her confessional, Joe disdains sentiment, and alternates her self-loathing with fiercely defensive diatribes.
Volume I ends with a crisis of sorts: Joe’s sexual tolerance (in addiction terms) has peaked; she can no longer “feel anything”. In Volume II, after experiments with sado-masochism, among other things, the specter of “treatment” for Joe’s nymphomania is finally raised. But she rebels against the pedestrian and “bourgeois” therapist who prefers the term “sex addict” and who glibly counsels Joe to methodically abstain from her sexuality. After three weeks of abstinence, Joe stands up in a support group, subverts the implicitly rote exercise, proudly declares that she “loves her cunt”, and triumphantly walks out of the session. Shame? It comes and goes in this story framed largely around flashbacks. Only as she ages and the present-day telling begins does she contemplate the emptiness within her double entendres: “Fill my holes, please”.
And it is ambiguous when the shame began for her. As Joe tells the backstory of her nymphomania, a younger Joe is characterized as a somewhat blank, almost doltish (though not innocent) figure, played by novice actress Stacy Martin. As a teen and early twenty-something, Joe seems dissociative, not exactly there, whether seducing a future husband, Jerome, or scheduling-in a series of lovers into her daily routine. Even when confronted by a lover’s humiliated wife and pre-teen sons (a dark but comic scene featuring Uma Thurman), she seems unmoved and distracted. Meanwhile, Joe neither seems seductive or even flirtatious with men, mostly because it simply isn’t necessary for her to be so. It’s as if Von Trier is making an adjunctive statement about male sexuality, one that—from the POV of a man—makes for uncomfortable viewing: namely, that seducing men doesn’t require much effort, much less qualities like charm. To side-bar into something self-serving, she reminds me of my character Chris Leavitt from Crystal From The Hills, who I think is difficult to like or become interested in, largely because of his dissociated, secretive, not there qualities. Yet having readers like him is the task, wrapping backstory and more energetic characters around my wayward protagonist because the traumatized have an important story, whether they tell it well or not.
So it is with Joe, though because we meet her elder version as an articulate and wounded storyteller, we perhaps feel more hope for her character, and more understanding from her POV. Nonetheless, her sexuality is an enigma: there seems to be little joy or even creativity in Joe’s past or present scheming, such as we might expect of a womanizer. For example, when seemingly traumatized by the delirium tremens of her hospitalized and dying father, she ventures down into the belly of the ward and is soon naked, bucking rhythmically atop an anonymous orderly. For Joe, getting laid is about as difficult as finding a break room with a vending machine. I make this point because amid the controversies that Nymphomania will likely spark, few will draw attention to how men are depicted. That’s because this is a film about a female protagonist as directed by a man, and is dominantly about women’s sexuality, so no matter how unflattering this film may be of men, it’s still far more likely that Von Trier will be accused of misogyny.
Regardless, of all the provocative tidbits in Nymphomaniac (there are soapbox moments about pedophilia and race for example) I think the most important issue concerns the filmmaker’s apparent attitude towards the genesis of Joe’s nymphomania. Using Seligman as a mouthpiece, Von Trier essays that Joe’s affliction, if it is even to be called that, is a natural condition, versus, say, a proclivity borne of childhood sexual abuse, as might be supposed by many viewers. I will admit to supposing this, partly because trauma is the etiology of Chris Leavitt’s affliction in CFTH, but mostly because Joe’s father, played by Christian Slater, is an alcoholic to whom Joe betrays an element of Electra complex—I made a guess during Volume I that Joe’s attraction to the mechanically inadequate and even mathematically precise lover, Jerome (8 thrusts: 3 missionary, 5 from behind) is a reenactment. Alas, there’s nothing in the film to substantiate my interpretation. Von Trier’s position seems to be more or less a Freudian/Kleinien statement: an assertion that human beings are sexual as infants. Without apology, Trier eschews latter day speculations of traumatologists, not to mention polite society, which remains horrified, not only by pedophilia, but also by the notion that children can have anything like sexual feelings. Seligman’s mini-speech towards the end—an unfortunately trite statement declaring that, if anything, Joe has been oppressed by a patriarchal society—suggests a feminist sympathy and a rebuke of mainstream prurience. Maybe Von Trier remembered some things as he was writing this story. Maybe he felt ashamed.