April 2014

Arts & Letters

Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’

By Luke Davies
A joyless, sterile effort from the Danish provocateur

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (in limited release) blends a certain majestic wackiness with von Trier’s increasingly hackneyed desire to rub us the wrong way. The film pathologises the female orgasm – in the sense that von Trier appears to be investigating it not in terms of its relationship to pleasure but as the gloomy locus of an existential anxiety condition – and portrays the human life force itself as joyless, sterile and compulsive. “How awful that everything has to be so trivial,” says Joe, our eponymous nymphomaniac (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and, as a younger woman, Stacy Martin). She’s speaking of the quotidian bleakness of a life lived with shackles, routines, children, and yet she does a good job of making her own obsessive and dysfunctional habits seem just that, too: trivial or, worse, stultifying.

“If you’re to understand,” says Joe to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), who finds her bashed and near-unconscious early in the film, “I’ll have to tell you the whole story. But it will be long. And moral, I’m afraid.” A card in the opening credits has already informed us that the four-hour Nymphomaniac we’re about to see is an “abridged and censored” version, “realised with von Trier’s permission, but without his involvement otherwise”. (The version made with his “involvement” apparently runs to five and a half hours.) The credits also tell us that none of the professional actors performed the acts of penetrative sex we see on screen, which means that CGI (computer-generated imagery) is far more advanced than I had previously thought.

Joe spends a long day recounting to Seligman (by his own account, an asexual virgin) the “story of her life”, which seems to mean “the mechanics of her nymphomania”. “You’ve had an accident,” he says, and the film implies that life itself – or perhaps eros – is the accident. In this light, Joe’s sexual compulsion is a kind of ongoing recuperative procedure, though palliative at best.

Of course, palliative drugs tend to be addictive. “I’ve shagged lots of idiots,” says Joe, and we see a good number of them in the film. At times her compulsive behaviour becomes so extreme that she’s juggling five or more men a night, and very tight timetables are called for.

One absurd, enjoyable and very uncomfortable scene involves just such a man, Mr H (Hugo Speer), who has made the cardinal mistake of professing his love for Joe. In a scheduling kerfuffle, Mr H – middle-aged, earnest – turns up at the same time as a younger man, a kind of naïve Adonis. Worse, Mr H’s wife (Uma Thurman) turns up with their three young sons and invites herself in.

Everyone sits around the kitchen table in the harsh light: the delusional paramour, the wide-eyed Adonis, Joe, Mrs H, the three bewildered boys. “Would it be all right,” asks Mrs H, “if I showed the children the whoring bed? After all, they do have a stake in this event.” Here, the kind of heightened melodrama that was played out in great seriousness in von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) registers as absurd comedy. When the melodrama was played straight, back in 1996, the result was a groundbreaking masterpiece, but here the fluid movement between high seriousness, high distress and the tongue-in-cheek has less consistent results.

Like many of von Trier’s works, the film is divided into chapters. In each one, Joe describes a stage of her life and Seligman digresses, commenting on her adventures and misadventures in a fashion resembling free-association. There are art history lessons, explanations of Fibonacci numbers, music theory, Zeno’s paradox (“You are Achilles and the tortoise is the orgasm”) and the history of the Roman and Orthodox churches. Nymphomaniac is stuffed with diversions, side alleys, speeches, digressions, and all manner of overt nods, not only to other directors (long-dead Andrei Tarkovsky is referenced visually and thanked in the credits) but also to von Trier’s own work.

While none of these digressions ever seem completely unconnected to the film, the degree to which they are fascinating, fresh, unusual, boring or pointless varies greatly. Von Trier is clearly a polymath, but after a while you feel that information is raining on you haphazardly, as if someone is tossing the contents of an eccentric apartment out a high window. That’s not to say the contents aren’t interesting, but one would like to have seen them in situ. Thomas Browne and Robert Burton, those 17th-century polymaths and master prose stylists not greatly known for getting to the point (Urn Burial, The Anatomy of Melancholy), organised their wide-ranging material more coherently than this.

In its current release, Nymphomaniac is divided into two parts of two hours each. The first feels fresher; in the second, after a while all the talk starts to become “talky”. The storyline becomes weaker in Part 2 – by the time Joe becomes a ruthless enforcer for a shady debt collector, L (Willem Dafoe), we have descended into absurdity. This might be a kind of false criticism, since Nymphomaniac operates so overtly as a parable, but if we are to believe that Joe’s inner landscape is real – “there was a world far from mine I had to explore and there, or perhaps on the other side, get my life back” – then we want to sense that her outer one exists, too, with events, and choices, and even believable careers.

Well into her journey to the heart of night, Joe fights a numbness that is described as being both clitoral and psychic. When she hears about a strange man, K (a disturbingly grown-up Jamie Bell, the star of Billy Elliot), whose clients are women wanting discipline, she is drawn to him. “This business of K’s was something I was completely against,” she tells Seligman. “So, the fact I was now contacting him was a last, desperate attempt to rehabilitate my sexuality.”

“Let me tell you the rules, then,” says K, when Joe goes to his “chambers”. “The first rule is that I don’t fuck you, and … there isn’t any discussion about that.”

“Then what do you get out of it?” asks Joe.

“That’s my business,” replies K, “and I don’t want you to mention it again. The second rule is that we have no safe word, meaning that if you, uh, go inside with me, there’s nothing that you can say that will make me stop any plan or procedure.”

Joe tells Seligman that K’s “system of violence” was the overriding factor that made her go back to him each time, but the thread is never really followed. We don’t learn how his “system” plays into her needs. When K releases his violence, each contained stroke is furious. Cinematically, as violent action, this is experienced as terror and abuse. In a real world wracked and torn by such terrible violence against women, it seems reprehensible – and gratuitous – to depict it so wantonly. That it’s little Billy Elliot delivering the fury makes it seem like a sick joke.

It does feel, finally, that von Trier tries to wrap up the show and make a point. “I’m definitely not like you,” says Joe to a woman at a sex addicts’ group therapy session. “That empathy you claim is a lie, because all you are is society’s morality police, whose duty is to erase my obscenity from the surface of the earth, so that the bourgeoisie won’t feel sick. I’m not like you. I am a nymphomaniac, and I love myself for being one, but above all, I love my cunt and my filthy, dirty lust.”

Perhaps we’re meant to feel something here. Triumph? Vindication? Heroes in westerns have been delivering versions of that speech – minus genital references – for 70 years: I’m not like you. I’ll do it my way. But the rant comes across as shrill, and unintentionally comical. It’s as if von Trier were channelling the pop-cultural agitprop of Jean-Luc Godard at his worst – the sloganeering of a film like La Chinoise (1967), say, that might have seemed fresh at the time but now comes across as cultural curio.

The result is that the joke winds up being on von Trier. In Breaking the Waves, his strength was revealed to lie in pure story, which at its cinematic best tends to feel circular, and densely wrought, and mythic. In not refining and reworking Nymphomaniac adequately, in allowing it to become merely loosely sequential, he has rendered it disappointingly inconsequential.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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