For the past few months, there’s been a steady stream of discussion surrounding Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” as its made its way to theaters and home viewing channels around the world. The first part finally hits U.S. cinemas today, and both parts are now available on VOD, so it seemed like an appropriate time to consider various ideas with respect to the films even if at this point you’re probably sick of hearing about them. But there’s really so much at play in “Nymphomaniac” — both positive and problematic — that it kind of begs further analysis, especially now that people everywhere are getting the chance to actually see it. So here — in a sort of random, freestyle form — are seven thoughts I had with respect to “Nymphomaniac,” which you should probably see before reading (unless you don’t mind some of it being spoiled).
has the same ring to my ears like “hysteria”, “homosexuality” or “promiscuity”
and of course that’s not an accident. The word evokes notions of a time when
the exploration sexuality, and especially female sexuality, was in the firm
male hands of doctors, psychoanalysts and moral spokesmen, long before any
liberation movements could tell us that (female) sexuality is not a bad thing. “Nymphomaniac”
as a film title is one of Lars von Trier’s questionable provocations. The term
is later turned into an empowering label when Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) leaves a self-help group
denying the diagnosis “sex addict” and appropriating the term “nymphomaniac”
for herself. Let’s just ignore the fact that the Greek word “nymphe” not only describes
a young woman of marriageable age but also a mythological nature spirit – a
classic dichotomous attribution of the female to nature and its nurturing,
motherly and “chaotic” qualities. Let’s also forget that in “Antichrist” Gainsbourg was psychoanalized by her husband and eventually burned as
a witch, if I remember correctly. Also noteworthy: men are “ladies men”, “Don
Juans”, “conquerors”, “womanizers”. Women are “sluts”, “whores”, “maneaters”, “femme fatales” or
“nymphomaniacs”. Just saying.
II. The saga
begins with a black screen, the ultimate symbol of infinity, nothingness and
imagination. Then, the camera cranes around a few back alleys that don’t seem
to disguise their artificial studio aura until we finally discover Joe, bruised
and battered, lying on the street unconsciously. Then, Joe will be saved by a
man she will confess her life story to.
All this is filmed in a weirdly cheap looking set that builds the basis
of the entire narrative frame. Is it all fake on purpose? Can we maybe not
trust our narrator Joe and her flashback memories? Is this set one of those van
Trier jokes like the fox in “Antichrist” that looks at the audience and says
“Chaos reigns!”? Before it all begins, the camera dives into a black shaft and
disappears. No further comment needed: A brutally beat-up nymphomaniac, a male
saviour, Freudian camerawork – we get what we expected, only to discover that
these “von Trierisms” are nothing but red herrings at first.
one: Does it matter that a male writer/director has the authority over a text
about female sexual emancipation? Question two: Can we watch “Nymphomaniac”
without having one eye on the ordeals van Trier has regularly sent his other
leads through? Question three: Does the director know what he is talking about?
Question four: Is it relevant to ask these questions?
IV. Part one is
one of the most sex-positive explorations of non-normative human behaviour
I have seen in a long time. And it’s funny. We see climbing ropes dangling from
the ceiling of a gym, knowing that somewhere up there little Joe has her first
orgasm during physical education, pun intended.
Yes, children are sexual beings, too. We see teenage Joe and her friend
on a train hunting for men to win a bag of chocolates as a prize for having most
sex partners before reaching their destination. Teenagers playing sex games and
not giving a fuck – nice. We hear about an all female
organization that forbids relationships and sleeping with the same guy twice.
Hello, slut pride, goodbye monogamous couple bullshit! Loving it. Joe’s first
sex turns into a graphic equation of penis pushes and anal hits before the
one-minute-looser-lover has come. No
need for penis envy – the phallus has just been deconstructed through ridicule.
Joe moves on, until she gets what she wants sexually and against all social
odds. Her “Rage to Live” is her rage to fuck and no one can stop her.
V. Then Part
Two. In it: “The Dangerous Men”. Jamie Bell as an underground S/M specialist
strapping Joe to the couch and beating her until her ass bleeds is something so
powerful and provocative, fearlessly played and well scripted that it took my
breath away for a moment. Before that: Sex without communication. Joe hires a
translator “of African languages” to fuck a black refugee from the streets. Him
and his buddy argue over who gets to enter which hole while their enormous
erections frame Joe’s face before being called “the Negro brothers”. No, some words,
like “negro” shouldn’t be erased from language, Joe says. Neo-colonial, ultra
racist bullshit, so offensive it made me want to puke. Also: the end of all
indulgent accepting or ignoring of van Trier’s “provocations”- a disappointing
Only towards the end does Joe get the idea of finally sleeping with someone of
the same gender. Makes you look back and think: “This has actually all been
pretty heteronormative” (Even though Joe’s entire story of being a sexual
outsider no matter what is a pretty queer idea).