Richard Brody wrote:
What the four-hour run of the two “volumes” of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” shows and says about its protagonist is trivial, but what it reveals about von Trier and his method is worth considering.
A man returning from a small convenience store finds a woman lying—torpid and bleeding—in a sepulchral courtyard. She refuses medical care, refuses the police, but will accept a cup of tea, and goes with him to his apartment. She’s Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg); he’s Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). After getting cleaned up, she rests in his bed and tells him the story of her life, which is mainly the story of her sex life. Throughout the telling, the quietly fanciful Joe, a sort of erotic Scheherazade, intently affirms a vague and unnamed guilt that the polymathic scholar Seligman tries to reason her out of.
Joe’s precocious genital consciousness led her to follow the lead of a high-school friend, called B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), in a game of sexual conquests aboard a train. (Young-adult Joe is played by Stacy Martin.) In her independent life, Joe often took as many as ten lovers in a single night. Some of them are young, some old; some handsome, some plain; some fit, some flabby; some stylish, some lumpish. And if there’s any doubt of their variety, a montage of lovers’ genitals, seen in close-up, makes the point: Joe doesn’t pursue a parade of groomed beauties or well-endowed studs, she has sex with a seemingly representative slice of the male demographic. And Joe, apparently, is not alone—she’s only one member of a group that formed in school, a secret sect of young women, or, as B called it, a “little flock,” that chants “mea vulva, mea maxima vulva,” and repudiates love in the sole pursuit of sex.
This indiscriminacy—the choice of partners not by beauty, charm, or charisma but on the basis of what Joe calls “morphological studies”—is the key to the movie’s pitch. Von Trier is the best advertising person in the movie business, and he has come up with a movie that is an ingenious commercial for itself. The average male art-house viewer emerges from the first part of Volume I filled with the pleasant idea that there are young women out there—young, pretty, sleek, and determined—who will suck him off in a random train compartment even though he’s forty, married, and faithful, or sleep with him on a regular basis despite his bald pate, bad clothing, bland affect, and blubbery gut.
“Nymphomaniac” is von Trier’s sexual tantrum, a cinematic declaration against faithfulness. For von Trier, love means having to do things you don’t want to do at a given moment, whether it’s sleeping at home beside your spouse when a momentarily more enticing lover awaits or having Sunday dinner at the in-laws. Love means always having to say you’re sorry. And far from being sorry, he’s cavalierly indifferent. Along the way, he offers repellently racist words and gags along with a sophistical endorsement of them; a definition of a good Jew (wanna guess? “anti-Zionist”); a repudiation of therapy (old news chez von Trier); a revulsion at parenthood; and a generalized sense (rendered as a specific visual metaphor in Vol. II) that any attempt to defer or deflect immediate sexual gratification is a mortification that leads swiftly to a total monastic repudiation of life itself.
Actually, there is one sequence that von Trier films with care and passion.
The masochistic relationship is what von Trier films with an almost palpable sense of excitement. What’s notable about those scenes is the way that they define the sadist (a man, called K, played by Jamie Bell) and leave his motives undefined. He, not Joe (now the adult, maternal Joe, played by Gainsbourg), is the focus of these scenes, and the meticulous practicality of his ministrations, as well as his overt, robust, nearly gleeful vigor in inflicting pain, is the sole focus of von Trier’s visual pleasure.
The core fantasy is of a woman who is man’s random source of pleasure and who, when she withholds herself from manhood at large because of her emotional bonds (or would take other action resulting from those bonds), von Trier sees fit to punish her for it, brutally. And the woman finds that punishment just and apt, not requiring redress of any sort.
She comes across mostly as a rebel -- I'm not sure how well male viewers are avoiding situating themselves inside her, experiencing her as their avatar. Going through the train might have brought to the fore our own memories of having done something generically akin to that -- the specifics concerning the man who had to be sucked off to win the candy might not be that important if we were conceptualizing him mostly as the tough-get we were once obligated to chase down to make up for previous losses. In regards to the man with the blubbery gut, this was the part of the film where after shucking off societal norms she was figuring out what actually would meet her needs -- I'm wondering if even this male viewer was too much indulging in this "Groundhog Day," what if there are no rules? possibility to be stepping outside her much, even when his likeness in physique and affect is draped into view as a draw.
I appreciate your concerns about how love is portrayed, but somehow despite the interest von Trier takes in the sadomasochism, she still came across here as the getting-on, hopeless addict, who lost a better happiness for some mid-life crisis, crazy thrill-ride. This might say something about what Labeouf brought to the film.
Parenting and therapy is refuted, but it can seem her loss. Seligman might not have much of a draw for her -- she can be pretty cold, brutal to him -- but I thought they both would have done well if they'd ended up friends, a la "Breakfast Club." Both decent listeners; willing to offer feedback and also open to being proven wrong. His being so excited at being able to relate his book knowledge to her experience, is pretty compelling -- and I don't think she was quite immune. I also enjoyed some of the moments she shared with her "adopted daughter," as well as with her father. Von Trier's excitement for the violence, is no friend to the human warmth that is in the film.
If interviews are anything to go by the depression you refer to is the director's own. Why, then, make a trilogy of movies about depressed women whose sexuality goes off the rails? In Antichrist Gainsbourg's character's sexual desires lead indirectly to the death of her child (punishment) and then directly to the her murder of her husband and suicide. Here Gainsbourg abandons her family because she wants more sex, even though she gets no pleasure from it. IOW, why not a male protagonist? (Here's a trick, if you're not sure if something is misogynist, imagine a man in the same role/position, ask yourself "Is it degrading, humiliating or just plain wrong?" and then ask yourself why.) What's feminist about a woman who compulsively has sex she doesn't enjoy, and yet believes she deserves punishment for it. Scratch that - what's *interesting*, new or insightful about watching a female character who compulsively has sex she doesn't enjoy, and then gets punished for it? I believe the descriptions of critics claiming the films aren't pornographic but I'm pretty sure Von Trier is getting off here.
I'm glad he did so, though. A mother's willingly torturing her child -- the big reveal in Antichrist -- is pretty much beyond what any of us can tackle right now. The limits of therapy were helpfully revealed, when her husband realizes why he was having so much trouble dissuading her she was evil -- "You did ... what?!"
This film teased at an explanation, beyond evil. The child's abandoned because it's seen as something which mocks and laughs at you when you so desperately are in need of the opposite. And the reason why you need so much, and why you'd spend your life throwing yourself at the rescuing-knight male sex, is because you had a "cold bitch" mother who turned her back on you. Isn't that why the final scene in Antichrist -- men had thus far proved irrelevant to the fates passed on through the mother-daughter dyad? Willem Dafoe was beginning to get it; Seligman was a step back.