Lars Von Trier's 'Nymph()maniac' Is Uncomfortable But Thought-Provoking

Director Who 'Understands' Hitler Gets Under Skin Again

By Jay Michaelson

Published April 14, 2014.

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Yet Seligman is also the Jew-as-interpreter. Joe provides the text, Seligman the commentary. Whether this deepens or distracts from the narrative is, itself, a question of philosophical disposition. Is life to be interpreted, or sucked dry?

Seligman is also the Jewish moralist – which here brings us to the second of the charges against von Trier: that he is a misogynist.

Certainly, as a writer/director, he depicts endless scenes of women being tormented. Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, and now Gainsbourg all endure brutal violence at the hands of men. (Gainsbourg, at least, was able to turn the tables in von Trier’s Antichrist, where she played the title character.) Von Trier is a critic of misogyny who enacts misogyny in his own work.

Nymph()maniac continues in this vein, but in probably the most explicit way yet. At one point, Seligman asks Joe whether she, or society, would judge herself if she were a man trolling for sex on a train, a man leaving his wife because of sexual desire, a man seeking out sexual pleasure. “Gender roles are killing and mutilating you and millions of women,” he says.

This is as explicit a feminist statement as we’ve ever seen in a von Trier film, although it doesn’t seem to persuade Joe, who continues to regard herself as evil and in need of reform. (With some justification: she did, after all, abandon her child, violate the trust of a teenager, and take up a life of crime.) And all of von Trier’s previous films can indeed be read of harsh critiques of sexism and misogyny.

And yet… there’s that niggling sensation that the auteur seems to like putting his women through the paces. Seligman, too, by finally compromising his morality at the end of the film, perhaps gestures to this ambiguity.

So, is all of this philosophical pondering great art, or pretentious hogwash?

This, too, is a matter of opinion. Certainly, Nymph()maniac is difficult viewing, although it also contains a series of scene-steals from Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, and Jamie Bell – interestingly, all stars whose most famous work lies in the past, and thus seem older than we remember – who are each devastating in their episodic appearances. (I’ll pass over Shia LaBoeuf here.) Their scenes are over the top, and tours de force.

But they are also a bit cool, because of von Trier’s Brechtian distance from them. We watch brutal scenes of (respectively) a mother unhinged, a father with dementia, and a sadist in action – all through Joe’s jaded and emotionless eyes. At times, Nymph()maniac can feel more like a concept paper than a realized film, with its stilted philosophizing and weirdly-off accents – the film seems to take place in London, but it was filmed in Belgium with a multinational cast, and seems instead to be set in some vague ‘Europe.’ Even for those who get past the many images of vaginas and erect penises, Nymph()maniac can feel, oddly, like a bore.

Not for me, though. From my perspective, any film that makes me think this much is worth two (or four) hours of my time. Nymph()maniac caused me to reflect on my own life, and how much I, like Joe, might “ask more of the sunset.” And how I, like her, may view it as sin or salvation.

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