Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Cinematographer: Manuel Alberto Claro
Producer: Marie Cecilie Gade and Louise Vesth
by Jon Cvack
Coincidentally, while writing about The Double Life of Veronique (1991), and looking up a New York Times article which compared Krzysztof Kieslowski to Lars Von Trier; describing Trier as a spoiled brat and Kieslowski as a gloomy neurotic fatalist (which I can't argue with).
The last four films I’ve seen from Von Trier include, Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), Dogville (2003), and most recently Manderlay (2005), all left me feeling impressed at certain moments (often in the beginning), and then evolving into uncomfortable anxiety that made me wish they’d end sooner, with absolutely no interest in returning to them. In all the interviews I read and watch with Lars Von Trier, I only see a raging Trumpian narcissist; insecure enough to create controversial films meant to shock and piss people off and abandoning the flawless craftsmanship of his mid-work with films like Europa, Breaking the Waves, and Dancer in the Dark. There’s a certain cynicism prevalent in his later work (including this film and perhaps his most controversial yet in his latest The House that Jack Built; arriving this year).
I was expecting more of the same from Nymphomaniac: hyper-violent sex, possibly so far as bondage and assault. And while I haven’t yet finished Volume 2, I figured that this should definitely be treated as two separate films; as I had forgotten of their separate release due to each volume running at about two hours with the director’s cut running six hours total. Unfortunately, I could only get the theatrical first volume and director’s cut for the second volume.
The film opens on a rooftop where rain falls down, trickling down into the gutter, leaking out and onto a trash pile below. Knowing what the film’s about, you immediately piece together the metaphor; watching as the pure liquid works its way into trash we find a woman on the ground, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), beaten and unconscious. Rammstein kicks in with “Fuhr Mc” (Lead Me) and we see a man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), walk into a bodega and buy a few groceries, before finding her in the alley. He offers to call the police and she refuses, asking to go back to his place.
She’s put up in the bed of his modest studio apartment. The walls are barren except for a picture of Mary holding Jesus and a piece of fly tackle hooked into the ceiling, along with a record player and a few books. Seligman is a well-read and empathetic man. He makes Joe a cup of tea who begins to tell her story, quickly revealing that she’s a nymphomaniac.
The film is divided into five chapters, beginning with the story of how Joe discovered her addiction. It starts off with the most awkward scene of the film in which two young girls, no older than ten, splash water on the ground of a bathroom before rubbing themselves against it (leaving me in discomfort as I imagined how Von Trier could possibly direct this). Joe’s dad is a nameless doctor (Christian Slater) who maintains a loveless marriage (both emotionally and mentally) and seems to comprehend and empathize with Joe’s affliction.
Around twelve Joe decides to lose her virginity, meeting up with the local bad boy Jerôme Morris (Shia LaBeouf) who takes her by inserting himself three times into her vagina and five times into her anus before finishing, which Seligman will reveal is a Fibonacci sequence (a mathematical formula that operates within most forms of the visual arts and music). Joe then stumbles home and so her sex addiction begins.
At fifteen, Joe (played by the brilliant and courageous Stacy Martin) friends a fellow nymphomaniac friend who invites her to a game of sleeping with as many men on a train ride as possible. The winner receives a bag of chocolates. The friend explains that the easiest way is to ask "W-questions" - What time is it? Where is the bathroom? Where are they going? All meant to slowly lure the men out of the compartment and into their nest. It culminates in one of the films most grueling scenes as Joe essentially rapes a married man who’s on his way home to his ovulating wife, waiting for him to try and make a baby. Joe instead rubs his legs as he begs her to stop before fellating and relieving him of the seed he was saving for her.
By this point I was nervous the film was simply another sensationalistic piece, showing the lowest and most private forms of life for the sake of pushing boundaries. At no point during the sequence does Joe show any signs of pleasure or enjoyment; nothing beyond wanting to service the man and her own compulsions.
Back to present times, Seligman compares the train episode to his hobby of fly fishing (the chapter’s name “The Compleat Angler” in reference to some classic outdoors book about flying fishing by Izaak Walton) and the ways in which certain lures (like the one Seligman has hanging on his ceiling) are used to get the fish. For instance, in the case of the married man, it’s both about finding the best spot where the older and wiser fish live (like the First Class compartment) in which she can then trap them by their inability to leave.
The story moves onto the next chapter, where Joe criticizes Seligman for eating pastries with a fork, which reminds Joe of her first job as a secretary; just so happening to apply for a job where Jerôme has temporarily taken over for his uncle. Remembering their rendezvous, he meets her into the elevator and stops it, making a move to which Joe denies him. By then, Joe had joined an anti-love group, causing her to sleep with everyone except Jerôme, including his co-workers, which drives him mad, until she decides she’s in love with him, writes a note, heads to work and finds that he had been fired and ran off with his other secretary.
Joe continues her pattern of sleeping with men, scheduling a minimum of eight per day, requiring precise time frames which some men don’t mind and others don’t comprehend. It comes to a head when a Mr. H (Hugo Speer) arrives with his bags in hand, ready to move in without Joe’s knowledge. Shortly after which Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) arrives with her three boys, devastated and distraught, having followed him over; made all the more awful by the fact that Mr. H doesn’t know of the other men.
Back to the present day, Joe’s in awe of Seligman’s respect and insights; if not a bit offended that he’s failed to make a pass. Seligman reveals that he’s asexual, existing on the opposite side of the spectrum, revealing that he’s never had any sexual desire; accompanied more by his books and music than anything else; kick-starting a discussion about Edgar Allan Poe’s and how his death reminds Joe of her father’s death from colon cancer. While her mother stayed away from the hospital, she watched her dad deteriorate which made her aroused.
The film ends on the chapter “The Little Organ School” in which Seligman makes another obscure connection to Joe’s promiscuous habits and Bach’s composition by the same name which uses polyphony (meaning there’s more than one note played at a time; which sounds fancy but is basically what all music does today); in which each man she sleeps with provides a different form of pleasure. The selfless F (Nicolas Bro) fills a box with water and bathes Joe as though a child. The "second voice" G (Christian Gade Bjerrum) offers an animalistic lust. While Jerôme provides the emotional connection; each function as a different instrument. As things look like they’re beginning to settle, Joe then suddenly loses all sensation in her vagina and the film ends.
The story takes on a common structure of a person relaying their life story to a complete stranger - Forrest Gump (1994) and Interview with a Vampire (1994) being two of the more popular examples. While it comes out of the gate with a bit too much shock value, it soon settles into an otherwise endearing story of a woman who’s struggling with a lifetime addiction that’s not at all different from alcohol or drugs. The reason the first chapter feels less connected to the others is by the very absence of pleasure. In the beginning, we see the young girl receive some sensation, but by age fifteen sex has developed into the very negation of pleasure; where at no point did she seem to enjoy herself so much as have a desire to have sex. The absence of explanation here made it feel a little gross. My cursory understanding of the disorder is that people are addicted to pleasure and are unable to moderate their intake. But if Joe had no pleasure, how did the addiction blossom?
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