Sexuality is all you'll ever need: Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten in a thoroughfare. Bruised and bloodied, she refuses any medical treatment. Seligman takes her back to his home and it is within the walls of his modest flat that Joe tells her life story: that of a self-confessed nymphomaniac and “bad human being”.

Told with titled chapters, to which Joe gives each a small introduction, her narrative is put in motion by what it is in view in Seligman’s room: a fly or “nymph” on the wall (for fly fishing), some rugelach, a tea stain, a mirror. The engagement with objects and symbols, confined to a visual space, create the parable of our film viewership with Seligman’s reading of Joe’s story. In his observations, addressing her belief that she is evil and, for the most part, trying to absolve her, he attempts to dismantle a truth within her story by reasoning or contextualising each chapter.

He uses anthropology, mythology, religion, history to interpret events, sometimes overlapping her storytelling, as though they were conducting a DVD commentary. Throughout this, we remain flies on the wall, watching and listening, and sometimes grappling with the translation. What Seligman says is often ridiculous and occasionally funny, but mostly succeeds in enlightening a familiar belief that old, under-sexed intellectual men fail to understand a woman’s sexuality. Joe has only the contents of Seligman’s home to furnish her story, which imposes on her very strict limits, and sometimes the story is put on hold while her eyes search the room. Language itself is against Joe, and to a degree, against women.

The film has a strange international cast. Unfortunately, Shia LaBeouf was afflicted by an English accent and playing the film’s most difficult character, Jerôme, the object of Joe’s love and a creature of weird fate. Stacy Martin plays the youthful Joe, who we follow through Volume One. Her performance is empty, her Joe a kind of sociopath. Placing a girl actress in Gainsbourg’s shadow, and asking that she perform sex with scores of different men, and enjoy it, was a challenge that von Trier doesn’t meet. Gainsbourg is an amplifier for human emotion, she brims with it, but Martin is cold, plain and naked.

At the age of fifteen, Joe asks Jerôme to take her virginity, and he does, then and there. The event is nightmarish, though the initial experience of intercourse with men is usually trauma for women. It involves a wilful engagement in physical pain and Joe is shamed by Jerôme for asking for it. The adult Joe confesses that her love for Jerôme is absurd, and she acknowledges that there is no reasoning to that love. Seligman keeps his observations to himself when it comes to Joe and Jerôme, except to observe that Jerôme’s chance recurrence in her story is implausible. Her love for Jerôme is also implausible, but that isn’t LaBeouf’s fault. Jerôme is not a spectacular person, or an interesting character. Joe’s love for him is real, but nonsense.

Within the enormous length of the film, there are few dull moments. Whether that’s the active manner with which we consume von Trier, or anticipate sex scenes, it’s difficult to know. However, with the introduction of K (Jamie Bell), the enigmatic sadist whom Joe visits in her darkest hour, von Trier orchestrates a splendid shift. The scenes with Bell are poised and palpable, and frightening. For the first time in the film, Gainsbourg is opposite a talent worthy of her. K is also the first man to really teach Joe something, and she later demonstrates these lessons when she takes a job working for L (Willem Dafoe).

Joe explains to Seligman that hers is a moral tale, which only really comes into play in Volume Two. There is an exception in Volume One, a scene involving Uma Thurman as the wife of a married man, come to meet Joe, who her husband left her for. The scene is played mostly for laughs, with Thurman’s desperation and distress and the frightened faces of her three children, a cartoonish contrast to Martin’s boredom.

The most criminally Lars moment, all his humour and use of Rammstein aside, is an undoing of a perfect scene, by following it with a kind of moral explanation. It is not one of Seligman’s digressions, but one of Joe’s, written in unnecessarily to reason her performing fellatio on a morally questionable man, whom she identifies with.

Though Joe suffers through a lifelong struggle to understand her sexual habit, she is a woman who attempts to seize control of what appears to be uncontrollable. She has sex indiscriminately, wilfully, in the pursuit of pleasure and of punishment. She isn’t raped, doesn’t contract diseases, and never, aside from her first time, experiences anything resembling sexual disgust. Joe’s sex is not immoral, but the consequences ultimately are. When she becomes mentor to P (Mia Goth), a young girl and protégé, a love-scene between them validates the reality of Joe’s addiction and how it has destroyed her, but this scene also leads to Joe making a kind of definitive moral choice.

In the chapter “The Mirror”, Joe attends a support group for women sex addicts. There, she is repudiated for terming herself a “nymphomaniac”, but responds with pride that she “loves [her] cunt”, and does not ally herself with any women who claim to share her affliction. She doesn’t represent women sex addicts.

Her redemption — a term used with hesitation — makes for a fantastic ending to a story that is unlike anything you’re likely to experience in theatres this year, even if it is simply because the content is so foreign. Like much of von Trier’s work, it will be a subject of divided critical discourse for years to come, but those usually averse to him should consider that he might win them with Nymphomaniac.

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