Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin
This first thing that must be said, above all else, is that Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Volume I & II should be seen as close together as one can handle. If one were to see the first and wait a week, or month as some people have had to, they will be left with an incomplete and ill-defined experience. The final shot of Volume I implies a completely different statement on Joe’s life without seeing the remaining film. Von Trier found a remarkably compelling moment to end Volume I that had the potential of leaving the audience to think that he is saying that the choices and turmoil of Joe is punished somehow by a harsh comeuppance, but it is in the last three parts that we are shown Joe’s true destination. A journey that, regardless of ones opinions on the morality, is in fact a heavy accusation pointed directly at the viewer themselves.
The Story so far…
Joe, (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found bloodied and beaten in a tight, dimly lit alley-way by an older man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). When she denies him to call the police or ambulance because she explains she brought it on herself, he takes her back to his place where she tells him her life story. A story that starts when she claims she had a spontaneous orgasm and visions of religious figures and ends with an unexpected death.
Volume I is Parts 1 to 5 covering her first, naive discovery of her body with a friend, then her perfunctory loss of her virginity to a young man named Jerome, a game where her and her best friend travel by train and play a game of who can have sex with the most men, a story where she compares the types of men she slept with and how what she got from them was like a piece of music from Bach, a situation where the game of revolving men comes to a head when it breaks up a marriage, and finally her randomly finding Jerome again and how it causes her to have her first breakdown.
Volume II brings us Parts 6, 7 & 8, where an emotionally broken Joe loses her family by her repeated searches inside the darker parts of sex as she tries to learn to have pleasure again in the act, Joe is forced to enter Sexaholics Anonymous where she she comes to terms with her baser needs and subsequently comes away learning to live with it, and she then enters into business as someone who roughs up people who owe a loan shark money, finds love and loses love, and in the end- is shown that perhaps she might not be as evil as she believes she is.
One sees a familiar frame narrative in the present tense wrap-around story of Joe and Seligman discussing the finer details of life and sex, with Seligman, being a self-proclaimed virgin and asexual taking the analytical and oft-times cynical place of the assumed vocal majority repressed-nay-ignorant audience member, while Joe tells her story of promiscuity and freedom of the body.
One might argue that the use of this mise en abyme would be von Trier’s fear that the audience is not smart enough to follow the narrative, but upon closer inspection I suspect that it is here two-fold, 1) That a character study such as this could never be told in a straight forward story, and only revealed in pieces, and 2) That indeed von Trier needed to have the opposing viewpoints presented between stories and voice the opinions of the maybe-probably-surely naive and repressed audience, as well as have someone explain in no-uncertain terms what he was trying to say.
Unfortunately, while this reviewer feels the statement on humanity, sexuality and feminism is clear, it does seem that it was lost on many. I shall do my best to explain:
Although, Nymphomaniac is considered to be apart of von Trier’s “Depression” trilogy, I argue that when you stand back he has also made a broader bank of films on his view that women are the stronger sex, and are unfortunately treated poorly. In Breaking the Waves, a woman who is so in love finds herself committing more and more dangerous sexual escapades to make her husband happy. In Antichrist, a woman loses her child, is brought to a secluded cabin to be forced to deal with the unfathomable connection between mother and child in a male-centric, “let’s solve this now” way, while she is still expected to feel sexy because society and men expect her to.
Or Manderlay, where a woman is welcomed as family into a small village until the men begin to find having a beautiful woman around gums up the works, until she is raped and instead of standing up for her the entire town turns a blind eye, because, well, beautiful women should watch how they flaunt their “beautifulness” else they might bring upon the deserved sexual assault of the man. Then watch, Dancer in the Dark for a woman wronged by a man, and so on…
As Seligman observes, if Joe’s story had come from a man none of the sexual escapades would even be balked at. Had two men decided to bed as many women as they wanted, either on a train or bar, most would consider it the dalliances of youth. And in furtherance, that most money-making sexcapade movies lean in the direction of the male persuasion; Man needs to lose virginity, Man has bet with friends to sleep with many women, Man must go to spring break, summer camp, band camp, sleep-over, weekend party and have sex with some female… and we all root them on. Porky’s is considered the highest grossing Canadian film- with a metacritic user score of 7.1, while a stronger, smarter female oriented film with a similar outlook, Spring Breakers has a 5.5.
Nymphomaniac is ultimately a film about how much society has used a kind of hegemony on women causing most to feel guilty for wanting the same pleasures as men, and that not only do women tend to have this guilt but they also take part in imparting the oppression on other women. When we first meet Joe, as she lies in the wet alley, blood streaming down her face, urine soaking through her jacket, she tells Seligman that she deserves it, and all through the entire eight-part story, she reiterates over and over that she is telling a story about her sinful life. And the sad part is she tells it with a sick need to help Seligman understand how sick she is in a kind of conspiratorial confession, and Seligman repeatedly tells her that nothing she has done presents her as some awful character. That aside from partaking in the accessory to men cheating on their wives, she does not do anything wrong -even when she is in her final career as a kind of mob-enforcer she makes assurances that no one is actually physically hurt- yet she cannot believe otherwise.
Joe’s relationship with her parents reveals quite a lot about what made her who she became; a mother who is so private she plays solitaire with her back to the room, alone, a woman who is weary of her daughter’s burgeoning and innocent sexual awareness, yet never talks to her about it, only banging on the bathroom door while Joe and her friend perform their “games” of self discovery. Her father, a kind man whom takes the time to tell her stories about everything including the details and differentiations of trees and finally showing her a tree, stripped of leaves in the colds of winter, that he feels best represents his soul; Joe often asks him to repeat his stories to hear them again and because she believes he gets as much joy from telling them as she gets hearing them. We learn that Joe’s cold and guilty feelings towards her love of sex comes from her Mother’s non-involvement- plus, perhaps the fact that she never finds a someone to truly love is because no-one could ever be as perfect as her father… and this is even more prevalent when Joe forms a friendship that turns in to a relationship with a younger woman, P, where Joe can impart a wisdom on her much like her own father did to her.
Which makes the final turn of events so tragic, when P, in her youthful exuberance turns her back on Joe. Joe has learned to be happy with herself, and her life choices only to have her first true love thrown in her face. Joe, lying in that alley, alone and broken, looks back at her life and decides that all the disgust and revile that society has towards a woman who chooses a life of pleasure is true and that she can never be allowed happiness. So- when the final twist happens, the twist that one would not have seen had they just watched Volume I, further drives home her point that nothing good should ever happen to her, all the while von Trier’s thesis shows us that Nymphomaniac is about how tough of a life women have, and how much men, throughout history, have had a front row seat in the matter.
A film called Nymphomaniac does, indeed, have plenty of sex in it, and almost all of it is messy, clumsy, cold, and sad. This is not a film meant to titillate, there is no sexiness in a story of a woman falling under the weight of her own excessive inhibitions. For, like Joe who is not enjoying the majority of the sex, we too, are not supposed to feel excited by any of the close-ups of genitals in various positions and movements. Joe is looking for something in the midst of all these bedrooms, and anonymous sex; validation? Her mother’s love? Power? Assuaging a societal guilt? All of the above? None of the above? Let’s face it, sometimes sex is about Love, and sometimes sex is about an animalistic need.
Lars von Trier’s film Nymphomanic does suffer from some slowing down when we do pop back to the present day with Joe and Seligman, but never enough to cause the film to fizzle. The stilted, almost automatic-feeling conversation between Joe and Seligman will most-likely cause some viewers’ neck-hair to bristle, but after some time you find that it is meant to be cold- two, educated minds meeting at a summit to discuss a favourite topic. Joe, working to raise the intellectual level of the story to appease the learned Seligman, and Seligman taking the time to drop the historical and literary references that propel Joe’s story from porn-shop bravado to introspective observation.
The larger thing going on here will come from what we ourselves bring to the viewing. How repressed, or oppressed we might be. How analytical or intellectual our views towards sex are will inevitably dictate what we want to get out of a film that, on the surface, claims to be about sex, but if we are able to leave our preconceived beliefs (whether nature or nurture- you decide) at home and open our minds up to a larger pressing issue on if one were to tell this story about a man would it have raised anyone’s ire? Of course, this story is about a woman… and why is that? So many people will get stuck on how a man wrote a story about a woman, but stop and ask yourself, WHY?
A hard film to watch, and certainly not one of von Trier’s that this reviewer will find himself wanting to drop in as often as others in his catalogue, but one that will, hopefully, cause people to discuss and analyze, if not for the hours and days after first viewing, but cause lingering questions to appear for years to come. Why did he tell this story? What is he saying about society? And how can we learn from this? All important questions to ponder before you see the film, and even more so after.