Nymphomaniac: Lars Von Trier’s Masturbatory Fantasy

The two-part film feels like the work of teenage boy.

Michael Atkinson April 10, 2014

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Shia LaBeouf in Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac. (Christian Geisnaes)

Pre­dis­posed though I am to appre­ci­ate enfants ter­ri­ble and anti-author­i­tar­i­an punk ges­tures and all-around net­tle­some­ness, I can no longer tol­er­ate Lars von Tri­er. The world’s most noto­ri­ous and beloved film-fest trou­ble­mak­er for 30 years now, the direc­tor of a relent­less series of aes­theti­cized provo­ca­tions such as The King­dom (1994), Dogville (2003), Antichrist (2009) and Melan­cho­lia (2011), von Tri­er spe­cial­izes in push­ing socio­sex­u­al but­tons and explor­ing the vic­tim­iza­tion of women. This has become a prob­lem, because, as is bru­tal­ly evi­dent in his new two-part, four-plus-hour epic Nympho­ma­ni­ac, von Tri­er doesn’t know the first thing about female sexuality.

Reality doesn’t much intrude on von Trier’s thinking, despite the film’s air of gritty sexual politics and its handheld naturalistic filming.

Nympho­ma­ni­ac (the o” in the title styl­ized by a vul­val pair of paren­the­ses, “(),” a symp­to­mati­cal­ly child­ish ges­ture) essen­tial­ly boils down to a dialec­ti­cal dia­logue of sorts between Selig­man (Stel­lan Skars­gård), a soli­tary aging bach­e­lor, and Joe (Char­lotte Gains­bourg), a watch­ful whip of a woman Selig­man finds beat­en in an alley and takes home to his bar­ren stu­dio flat. There, Joe regales the curi­ous care­giv­er with the sto­ry of her life — which is the sto­ry of her unremit­ting desire to fuck.

Von Tri­er jazzes up Joe’s saga with dia­grams, archival footage and self-ref­er­en­tial­i­ty (Joe even puts titles on her chap­ters”), as the well-read Selig­man con­nects the smut­ty tales to tan­gen­tial ideas, includ­ing the Fibonac­ci sequence, Bach’s polypho­ny, the sta­tions of the cross, fly-fish­ing and James Bond. But the gist of the over­long film is Joe’s con­scious­ly extreme sex­u­al resumé, from spon­ta­neous tween orgasms to teen belt-notch com­pe­ti­tions” to jug­gling mul­ti­ple lovers in a sin­gle evening to, even­tu­al­ly, bloody sadomasochism.

Huge swathes of the film play out as though the direc­tor were imag­in­ing the inte­ri­or life of his hero­ine and her com­pul­sive vagi­nal engage­ment using only mate­r­i­al from his own inex­pe­ri­enced fan­tasies, the way a blind man might imag­ine a rain­bow. Von Tri­er has his hero­ine start a mil­i­tant anti-romance girls club (they’re rebelling against love, you see), roll dice to decide which of her liaisons to pur­sue or drop, lubri­cate at her father’s death bed, give birth by Cae­sare­an so her cunt” won’t lose sen­si­tiv­i­ty and sit patient­ly in a horse­whip­ping sadist’s wait­ing room with oth­er women eager for a drub­bing. It’s a litany of notions that might occur to a frus­trat­ed 16-year-old boy who’s nev­er touched a breast. Real­i­ty doesn’t much intrude on von Trier’s think­ing, despite the film’s air of grit­ty sex­u­al pol­i­tics and its hand­held nat­u­ral­is­tic filming.

There are glimpses of hard­core sex (more in the uncut Dan­ish ver­sion — sup­pos­ed­ly man­aged by dig­i­tal­ly blend­ing porn actors’ gen­i­tals with the stars’ bod­ies). But sex­u­al pol­i­tics is the bear von Tri­er is delib­er­ate­ly pok­ing, con­struct­ing his film nar­ra­tives as though he’s an expert in female pathol­o­gy, so that’s the scrim through which we should view Nympho­ma­ni­ac. The trag­ic ter­rain von Tri­er is approach­ing here is the mys­te­ri­ous Sadean region where mun­dane halfmea­sures like love, coitus, plea­sure, devo­tion and social nor­mal­cy pale before the need to go fur­ther, where pas­sion and phys­i­cal con­tact isn’t enough, where noth­ing is enough. In cin­e­ma and in action, sex­u­al extrem­ism and sado­masochism are metaphors for the unbridge­able dis­tance between peo­ple. We are, now and always, on our own.

But Joe, com­plete­ly self-focused, seems to be hunt­ing for auton­o­my and obliv­ion,” not com­mu­nion with oth­ers. You’d think that per­haps Michael Haneke’s majes­tic The Piano Teacher (2001), which care­ful­ly dis­sects the out­sider-ness of sex­u­al self-destruc­tion, might be the brass ring von Tri­er was reach­ing for. Still, the philo­soph­i­cal fem­i­nist prece­dent to beat is still Agnès Varda’s chill­ing, scorch­ing­ly defi­ant Vagabond (1985), which limns an anti­so­cial odyssey to the edge of extinc­tion with­out resort­ing to semi-porn.

In the 1990s, von Tri­er was both a skilled crafter of intense melo­dra­mas and a half-assed social sci­en­tist; by now, the dra­mat­ic fire­works have fiz­zled or become emp­ty histri­on­ics, leav­ing only the bad ideas. Von Tri­er may have thought he was mak­ing an impor­tant state­ment with Nympho­ma­ni­ac, but too much of the film feels mere­ly exploita­tive and ill-informed. It’s dif­fi­cult to shake the sense that the film­mak­er is mere­ly indulging his own kinks and his own blink­ered view of women.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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