One of my big resolutions for 2014 (and there are several) is to keep up with this blog, comprehensive exams be damned. The only problem, of course, is that I won’t be able to pick up a novel for at least 3 months, until said exams are comfortably in the rearview mirror of my academic career (such as it is). That leaves me with two choices: to review novels I’ve read in the past year and just didn’t have the time to write about; and to talk about other forms of creative media, like film and TV. (But really just film, because the only shows I follow are Scandal, Girls and The Newsroom, and God knows others have written more than enough on all three.) So this time, I’m going with Option Two.
My SO and I were in France over the Christmas holiday and, while visiting one of his old friends in Bordeaux, we saw a movie that’s slated for release in the US in March 2014—one that’s garnered quite a bit of . . . erotic intrigue already, in the way that borderline-pornographic films made by controversial Danish directors eager to wag fingers at the “prudishness” of Western culture are wont to do. Nymphomaniac, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf and Stellan Skarsgård, will be unveiled in two volumes, each a little more than 2 hours long, Kill Bill-style.* The uncut version is something like five-and-a-half-hours long, and parts of it were apparently unable to make it past the decency sensors of even countries like France. Considering that I thought von Trier’s penultimate film, Melancholia, was substantially less interesting than watching paint dry, I didn’t have high hopes for Nymphomaniac, but—quelle surprise—I can’t stop thinking about it, a week after the fact. It’s a fascinating movie, but, and this is an important caveat, also utterly ridiculous. I shall elucidate.
For the record, I’m basing my summary and critique solely off of Volume 1, and so have ignored all media spoilers about Volume 2, including the ones in that Variety review I linked to a few sentences back.
The movie begins with a battered woman lying in a dark alley, bruises decorating her face. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who appears to be the quintessential sad old bachelor trudging through the rain with sagging shoulders and soggy grocery bags, stumbles upon the woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and tries to call an ambulance. She says she’ll run if he does, and so he consents to taking her back to his apartment for some tea and a warm bed. Seligman asks Joe if she wants to talk about her predicament, and she begins her “sad and moral” story, one she tells chapter by chapter. There are eight chapters in all, the first five in Volume 1.
In short, Joe believes she is a nymphomaniac, a word I had to look up simply because whatever she was supposed to be in the film didn’t comport with the definition I thought I knew. According to the World English Dictionary, “nymphomania” is the female counterpart to “satyriasis,” and is “a neurotic condition in women in which the symptoms are a compulsion to have sexual intercourse with as many men as possible and an inability to have lasting relationships with them.” I’d been heretofore unaware of the “lasting relationships” addendum; I’d assumed nymphomaniacs were simply that male fantasy come to life—women who suffered from insatiable physical lust.
But whatever else you can say about Joe, physical lust never really seems to play a huge role in her exploits. At the age of 15, she’s desperate to get rid of her virginity and, after a painful and demeaning relinquishment, she swears she’ll never have sex again. As an older teenager, she gives in to a friend’s pressure to partake in an incredibly disturbing sex contest, as the two girls board a commuter train and compete to see how many men they can get to screw them in the train bathrooms over the course of the ride. They claim they are rebelling against a love-saturated culture, and they don’t appear to be particularly driven by impulses. In fact, there are only a few sex scenes (of many) where Joe actually seems to be enjoying herself. (FYI, the younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin, a dead ringer for Gainsbourg’s mother, Jane Birkin. Also worth mentioning: Von Trier hired porn body doubles for most of the cast for the truly explicit sex scenes—although the actors’ full-frontal nudity is all natural.)
At some point, Joe applies for a job as a secretary at a publishing house and ends up working for Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), the man who so memorably took her virginity years before and with whom she ends up falling in pure (i.e., sexless) love. After Jerome runs off with somebody else, Joe begins having listless, meaningless sex with 8-10 partners per night; she chooses whose phone calls she will return at random. One evening, to get rid of one partner before another shows up, she tells the former that she loves him “too much” and knows he’ll never leave his wife for her; they can thus no longer see each other. An hour later, the married man shows up at Joe’s door with a suitcase and his abandoned family in tow. The wife (Uma Thurman) unleashes her cuckolded ire upon Joe, doling out the familiar you-manipulative-slut invective while completely ignoring the real villain, her own husband, standing there, silent, obvious. Later on, Joe’s beloved father (Christian Slater) is committed to a hospital—it’s a bit unclear for what—and she cares for him as he dies, finding real tears, and real sadness, when he finally succumbs to his undefined illness. Volume 1 ends with Joe’s reuniting with Jerome and, despite the fact that she has preserved her love for her former employer, she loses her capacity for orgasm right when it matters most.
As far as we know, Joe never receives any monetary payments for sex, and yet we’re given no clues as to how she supports herself: Jerome’s successor fires her from the publishing house, and the only reference to Joe’s working life after that is a voice-over about how she handles her nightly sexual roster “while holding down a full-time job.” Never once does Joe use or mention birth control of any kind, nor does she appear to live in a world in which STDs exist. Here, one could either write the film off as irredeemably ridiculous or wonder what the hell von Trier is trying to say. Pregnancy is too overwhelming a consequence of females’ having casual sex for its exclusion to have been unintentional, and this fact informs my guess that von Trier intended to make Nymphomaniac a subversively feminist film.
Consider the general history of female characters in Western film and literature. You’ve got three consistent archetypes: the mother, or mother figure; the femme-fatale Mata Hari who leads the hero astray; and the good, caring “dream girl,” the one who saves the hero from himself. From Eve to Penelope to the Virgin Mary to the women in movies like The Hangover, the basic premise of so many male-centered narratives is that women play certain distinct—and distinctly simplistic—roles: they give life to men; they tempt men into succumbing to worse, baser impulses; and they redeem men. The men, in turn, must carefully navigate the women populating their personal odysseys and, even if they make some poor choices along the way, will eventually stumble upon salvation.
Von Trier has anointed Joe—male spelling and all!—the proverbial female man (or male woman?): Her father is her untouchable hero. She acquires an impressive list of anonymous and casual conquests, never once having to worry about the problems that only affect women, like pregnancy, or mostly affect women, like sexually-transmitted diseases. Seligman saves her, literally, and he spends most of his screen time convincing Joe that she is, in fact, a good, normal person, even as she rakes herself over the coals for her supposed moral transgressions. To speak in Sex and the City parlance, Joe not only is able to “have sex like a man,” but she’s also done it consequence-free for at least as many years of her life as Volume 1 covers. (By “consequences” I of course mean purely physical; neither male heroes nor Joe can quite elude the emotional scars of the paths they tread.) And the men other than her father, Seligman and (sort of) Jerome—the men Joe uses to destroy herself—are almost without exception painted as completely depraved.
Von Trier equates your average man to your average beast: There’s the aforementioned married man with three young sons who tosses hearth and home away for a pretty woman—a girl, really—who can barely remember his name; there’s the man on the train who claims to be happily married and is literally unable to resist the offer of oral sex from a teenage stranger; there’s the string of comically credulous lovers who simper when Joe assures each that he is responsible for her very first orgasm. Even Jerome is an emotional disappointment, ignoring Joe’s obvious ardor and running away with someone else, breaking Joe’s heart. Men, in Joe’s world, respond almost exclusively to carnal cravings and are unmoved by honor, loyalty, love, even pride. Needless to say, this is hardly an accurate depiction of masculinity, even in its most condensed form, so why has von Trier chosen to portray his male characters in such a way? This movie is nothing if not wholly conscious, sometimes eye-rollingly so, methodically spelling out for the audience what we’re supposed to take away from Joe’s saga (It’s Seligman who serves as the Greek chorus of the movie). I also can’t help but think that von Trier, aware that charges of misogyny are inevitable whenever a male director (or male artist of any kind) opines on female sexuality, preemptively avoided that land mine by turning the men into caricatures. And the thing is, you can really approve of what the director’s trying to do without endorsing his worldview. (At least I hope so.)
I eagerly await Volume 2 where, from what I’ve heard, the biggest of those physical consequences of casual sex are going to catch up to poor Joe. Until April.
* Tarantino always gets there first.