Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymph()maniac’ Is Uncomfortable But Thought-Provoking
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.
It’s even like clipping one’s fingernails. Right-handed hedonists clip the left hand first, because it’s easier – to Joe, this is obvious. Right-handed ascetics clip the right hand first to get the harder work out of the way; this is Seligman’s method.
What becomes clear, over the course of Nymph()maniac, is that sex is, for Joe and perhaps for us, about everything, and everything is about sex. Freud’s theory of children being polymorphously perverse is invoked late in the film, and it seems to be validated for adults as well. Even the punctuation at the center of the film’s title is meant to evoke the female genitalia. Now, if you saw that yourself, does that make you sophisticated or depraved?
In asking these sorts of questions, Nymph()maniac raises all three conundrums about von Trier that I raised a moment ago.
First, there is the question of Judaism. Readers of this publication may recall that, two years ago, von Trier gave yet another absurd, provocative interview in which he said, among other things, “What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. … He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews.”
This was too much, of course, for the Jewish “watchdogs” that help us sort bigots from the just. We’re not allowed to have complicated thoughts about Hitler; we’re only allowed to have one thought. So von Trier was roasted, and duly apologized, although he later appeared to recant the apology.
As well he should have. As an intellectual and an artist, of course von Trier wants to try to understand evil; it’s what he does in most of his films. He also explained that he’d recently learned his actual father was a German, not the Jewish man he had known as his father. And that he was joking. Or whatever.
The Judaism in Nymph()maniac is far more interesting than identity politics. Seligman is, in part, an anti-Jewish cliché: he is the desensualized, feminized Jewish man who stands apart from life, rather than living it. Only at the very end of the film does he seem to possess a libido, and even then, he explains it as a matter of intellectual curiosity.
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.