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Nymphomaniac

Christian Slater as the rescuing father

Nymphomaniac


A worn-out adventurer finds herself taken to a safe haven, encouraged to rest up and when ready, tell her tale. It's of being by society's definitions, an outcast. Someone who in simply following her natural instincts would find herself condemnation-worthy to most. The listener -- himself unusual, for being in his case asexual, and for having an allegiance to great voices of literature which span far beyond the contemporary and into truths never normal to the fearful median in any culture -- assures her at the finish of her tale that she should take pride in how she has lived. To have done other than she had would have been to have untrue to her life-instinct.


So she's like a Lestat, just being natural to the vampiric -- to his own particular nature, that is -- commendable that much more because prosaic bourgeois society is possessed of a highly villainous aspect. It doesn't want to understand the Other, just denature it of any threat. And finding herself outside the conventional, she does what anyone with real courage in that situation would -- she casts off conventions and experiments with how the world should be conceptualized to be appropriate to her own drives. It's hard to tell what that might be at first. There might innocently accrue, as she recognizes, broken eggs, as she makes her omelette -- hard for even a sympathetic listener to quite agree to understand as such, for the listener's not knowing what it is to have to try and make one only out of elements originally purposed for a different fate. But she learns how to fashion for herself a life that fully satisfies -- built of course out of a multitude of lovers. She needs some who worship and defer; some who dominate; and some -- or rather, one -- she can be in love with.

So we have here a female empowerment story, which can be fun to watch as she advances through her life as a resolute-enough gamesman. But where is there anything here that a liberal listener/viewer wouldn't take immediate pleasure from -- it seems so easy to assimilate. And much of the film might indeed be that … if we hadn't already seen his "Antichrist." But assuming we have, certain elements of the film satisfactorily work toward developing an understanding of "unaccountable," horrifying aspects of female experience, we essentially never give air to.




In "Antichrist" a renown therapist is sure he understands his wife better than she herself does. She blames herself for her child's death, but he knows the psychology of it, of the proclivity of the truly innocent to blame themselves, and is absolutely sure he can help her return to normal. Only what happens is that he learns a truth about her that he can't accommodate, that ostensibly lies outside any rightful nursing, that has him appreciating how truly evil his wife must in fact be. He thought their child slipped off an edge and fell to his death only because -- counter to their norm -- a window was innocently left unlocked while he had momentarily been left alone and presumed asleep. The truth is he fell likely in good measure as a result of his wife's deliberate efforts -- she set him up to fall, by torturing him in a lengthy period where he was alone under her care into possessing deformed feet. His wife tries to hunt him, kill him, though he in the end ends up killing her. But the film doesn't just end with a sense that genuine evil does exist and has temporarily been defeated, but -- surprisingly -- more with a sense of how sad it remains that there is a truth about womankind that humanity has not yet been able to accept or even address that dooms women to find whatever commiseration they can in their own afflicted company. He stands alone in the forest -- the victor -- and sees a legion of women coming up the hill (thankfully) not for revenge but to join his newly deceased wife. It is not just his wife … It is something about all women, he has come to understand. After the awe out of this awareness, and of the extent of his own previous ignorance, fades, he -- and we -- are prepared to ask -- What is it, then? What could drive so many women unavoidably into the worst sort of witch-like inclination -- to be systematically cruel to and even murder children? 




The key to providing a liberal's answer to "Antichrist's" eerily convincing prompt not to further obliterate the idea of original sin but to admit there's basis for it, is provided in this film, where we learn that when the nymphomaniac has a child she perceived it immediately as something which saw her straight -- that is, correctly -- and laughed. She says she felt found out, betrayed, and realized the child would never return her love. The therapist listener in this film, Seligman, identifies the laughing child as a satanic reference, thinking it related to her condition as a nymphomaniac, not simply to her just being a new mother. But in truth, it is just this that is mostly behind her crazy misperception of the child. Most mothers historically have experienced their children the same way Joe does. They hoped it would bring love, but perceived it instead as rejecting. They were set up to expect deliverance, and were received to humiliation instead. As a result, they feel the urge to respond in kind: to hurt the child, to abandon the child -- something Joe does to her own child not just by leaving her alone so he might walk out onto an edge -- an event which chimes "Antichrist" back into this film -- but by letting fate snare him along into a foster home.

But why would women see their own children as having responded to them this way, with such brutal adult dismissal? The answer to that lies in this film as well, and has everything to do with her origins but nothing to do with her nymphomania. We see her for the first time as a child when she's delighting in her own invented play, and her unforgiving "cold bitch" mother angrily lashes out at her for it. We've been introduced to this scene ostensibly to understand when she first became aware of and first explored her nymphomania -- playing as a frog and rubbing her cunt onto the floor. But a better priest/therapist than Seligman would have asked if her believing herself evil owed simply to this innocently disclosed reveal of early-experienced maternal rejection. So much of what she focuses the rest of her narrative on suggests this is her real issue, what actually lies behind her stubbornly held belief that she is a sinner. For while the rejecting mother is thereafter conspicuously avoided, the supportive father is determinedly focussed on, and probably inflated. Her mother ignored her, turned her back to her, and self-absorbedly occupied herself with solitaire, while her father delights in sharing time with her in the woods, telling her evocative stories and doing everything he can to tease her into believing life can be a wonder. He's an ensconce she wants to further bury herself into, something she schemes for herself by for example pretending she hasn't heard his father's tales so she might lose herself once again within them. How truthfully he's depicted ... is worth exploring -- since he so clearly is the father she would require him to be for him to be to have some chance of quitting her mother's own deadly judgment of her.

The rescuing father, saving her from the oblivion of her mother's rejection, is evidently what she is seeking out in life, easily as much as sex. The boy she finds peculiarly appealing, whom she asks to take her virginity, appealed to her for his strong fireman hands -- not his cuteness, that is, something you'd expect a virgin teenage girl to remark upon, but his fatherly, rescuing strength. We note the conspicuous physical resemblance between them immediately, not just in height and weight but in overall appearance. And it's not an observation to be later waylaid but eventually doubled-down on: the actor chosen to represent the older Jerome might indeed have been better played by Christian Slater himself, if he was ten years younger. Slater's version, indeed, would had more of the sprightliness Michael Pas's thug-version is completely lacking in.



Labeouf's more hopeful version



Michael Pas's asshole thug version
So the father, or the masculine realm deliberated so that it's in opposition to her early-experienced maternal one, is the source of her aspirations throughout most of her life (indeed, late in the narrative she describes how, to help cure herself of anomie, she trekked out into the wild and discovered alone in the high altitudes, amidst a barren landscape, a strong, maybe-threatened, but still undaunted, lordly tree). But late in the narrative she does undertake to herself the maternal she hereto hadn't touched upon at all. She becomes, effectively, a foster-mother to a stranded adolescent girl. To her, her intentions behind this seem worthy of being judged malign -- she's ostensibly just offering her support to claim her loyalty for criminal activities -- but she's open to having this fact adulterated, to being justifiably rescued from this self-condemnation; and in fact evil intent really only manifests when she conceives of her adopted daughter as a traitor, someone's who's removal from her feels like deliberate rejection and mockery. She espies her daughter drinking and enjoying herself, partnered with her precious Jerome. She immediately seeks to destroy them both, by overtly murdering him -- but thereby destroying this young girl's first independent venture into something that profoundly satisfied and sustained her. 

I'm not sure we make the connection -- that her mother's treatment of her would doom her to interpret her own children's independence so coldly -- but we are overtly prompted to do so. She remarks that in her loneliness away from her daughter, she had resorted to playing solitaire: the very game she had associated with her mother's cruelty is being associated as but a recourse from one's own judging oneself as having likely been deliberately abandoned. There's a generation to generation curse bewitching womankind, which encourages seeking out the salve of the masculine but never allowing one to not feel intrinsically unworthy of and permanently separate from it. Men are immune, outside the mother-daughter dyad; and though they have begun to notice some peculiarities which might unspell what is still mysterious and unknown to them about women, they haven't yet gotten to the point where they can appreciate how insufficiently-attended-to mothers doom their daughters over successive generations, stretching back to, in some cases to, the first woman --  to "Eve." True absolution for her would have been if she had allowed her adopted daughter her happiness with Jerome, fighting off her feeling betrayed. She couldn't manage it, and this is why she so stubbornly holds onto her sense of herself as evil -- she's right: all her own growth, her own partaking of generous male strength and successful, joyous adventures, hadn't allowed her when tested as an adult to pass the test all others of her female lineage had obviously failed.

Since Seligman can only understand her as someone who's story showed she succeeded, he just offers the sort of balm that tempts so many heroines of Von Trier's films but which they finally, rightfully, reject. To his credit, he realized there was something strange, suspicious about the narrative she tells -- specifically, the conspicuous role as a rescuer that Jerome often plays, including near impossible, mythic dramatic details -- like literally coming upon her and hoisting her up after having been nowhere in her life, when she was feeling especially alone. He indeed sensed it as fairy-taleish, a knight out of nowhere rescuing her from something that the rest of her narrative doesn't quite seem to disclose. But he doesn't imagine this quite possibly projected rescuer as her counter to the visitation she received early in life, which declared her bequeathed from and sealed to "divine" horrors -- the two aerial demon women; two true historical female devourers  Men, the film declares, haven't yet built themselves up to being equal to the requirements of what rescuing women will involve. This will involve refusing them their drive to find solace in the masculine, the fatherly, and delve more deeply into the mother-daughter dyad. Trees that read as the melancholy but proud Romantic masculine, or as sheltering, paternal-infected, lullaby abodes are to be rejected for the terrifying witch-saturated one in "Antichrist," where surely one'll find oneself deep in the tremulous, terrifying womb, where consciousness began.  

Lars Von Trier wouldn't want to go there, because that inspiration came from when he was horribly depressed. But it was a hugely important discovery, a key to finally cleansing any need to believe there might just be some justification for original sin. "True Detective" just proved to be unwilling to go there as well. Terrified men, is what we've apparently now mostly got, who need to seclude in the Male safe as much as women do. Let's hope that eventually some subsequent can at least do Lars one better. Admittedly, when you look below, that's a pretty damn scary place they're going to have to go.



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