For those still brooding over the Woody Allen scandal, consider those of us who are fans of Lars von Trier.
Von Trier is not a 78-year-old comic with a single crime, alleged to have taken place twenty years ago, never proven, and dismissed by law enforcement. He is a complicated, depressed, brilliant, misunderstood, controversial filmmaker who is either an anti-Semite or a quasi-Jewish theologian, either a radical feminist or a misogynist, either an artist or a blowhard.
Not many people will see von Trier’s latest film, the two part philosophical/sexual epic, Nymp()maniac, both parts of which are now in limited release. Anyone expecting pornography will be disappointed; while there is plenty of sex and more nudity than I’ve seen in any non-pornographic film, it’s about as un-arousing as a series of medical examinations. And most of those who even hear of the thing will, I suspect, raise their eyebrows and move on.
But Nymph()maniac is a fascinating, flawed artifact. It is a meditation on morality, theology, and whether wanting too much pleasure out of life is a sin. It is also very talky – think of it as My Dinner with Andre with full-frontal nudity.
Ostensibly, Nymph()maniac is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is indeed a nymphomaniac, and who tells her tell to Seligman (Stellan Skaarsgard), a kindly, asexual Jewish intellectual who finds her injured one night and takes her in. In eight chapters – framed, as in much of von Trier’s recent work, by interstitial titles – she describes a life of sexual voraciousness, culminating in violence and loss.
As someone whose appetites cannot be sated, Joe binges on everything, and indeed, the laundry list of erotic possibility is here: S/M, group sex, borderline incest, you name it. But she is so anti-sentimental that she feels nothing emotionally, even before her body goes numb physically at the end of Part One. She confesses to Seligman that she is an evil person.
Curiously, Seligman resists, and this conflict – between Joe’s sense of herself as fallen, and Seligman’s belief that she is not – spans the entire duration of the film. We are left to judge for ourselves.
We are also given, in various degrees of awkwardness, a dozen or so religious allegories for Joe’s experience. Her descent from sensual gluttony into self-punishment is analogized by Seligman to the life-affirming Eastern Orthodox Church and the death-centered Western Roman Catholic Church. Sex is like flyfishing. Sex is like polyphony. Sex is like numerology.