April 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Nymphomaniac is the latest booby-trapped, critic-proof provocation from Lars von Trier, master of viscerally rendered suffering framed within ludicrous conceptual containers. The action of von Trier’s movies usually has a lo-fi immediacy, flecked with spasmodic outbursts caught by an anxious, almost hyperventilating camera. But there are always chalk-lines on a sound-stage, the blurred-out faces of local bystanders, or some stately chapter heading to remind us that the chaos operates according to some blasphemous meta-narrative design. Nymphomaniac is something of a self-reflexive interrogation of this approach—the gridlines are imposed not by Lars but by his characters. Enter the framing device: Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) has found Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in an alley where she has been brutally beaten, and invites her into his home to recuperate. She tells him the story of her life (organized by chapter) and he filters her tale through analogies, metaphors, and playful intellectual associations.
There’s a lot of cruelty and confusion in Joe’s story, but it transpires within an unadorned placelessness—it’s what we might call a narrative tabula rasa—that openly invites Seligman’s digressions and embellishments. Von Trier’s color palette ranges from hardwood brown to talcum white, his images possessing a kind of antiseptic cleanliness that robs them of any pleasure or vitality. It’s up to Seligman to provide a sense of humor, a moral takeaway, a nested metaphorical meaning, anything to deliver Joe’s story from literalist drudgery. It’s a task he finds himself less and less equipped for as the film progresses. From this brief synopsis one might infer a dialectical consideration of the act of storytelling, with the teller and her audience in uncomfortable discourse on both the nature and necessity of narrative interpretation.
But Joe is a sex addict, and because this is a Lars von Trier movie, this fact makes the whole affair innately ridiculous. Joe’s literalism takes on a designed-to-shock bluntness, and Seligman’s figurative extrapolations are reduced to a lot of ‘edgy’ ironies. Imagine the notorious rape sequence in Dogville ground into a miniaturized formula: explicit sexual abuse + foregrounded conceptualism = deliberately elicited outrage. Only replace ‘outrage’ with ‘laughter,’ which in Nymphomaniac becomes the default response to so many absurd layers of textual commentary. When Joe recounts the taking of her virginity by a young ruffian named Jerome (Shia Lebeouf), the depicted misery is sterilized first by Joe’s matter-of-fact narration (paraphrasing from memory: “He poked me three times in my cunt. Then he flipped me over, and poked me five times in my ass”), second by numerical overlays (“3+5=8”), and finally by Seligman’s unlikely exclamation, “Those are Fibonacci numbers!”
The great bulk of Nymphomaniac is a protracted comedy of discomfort. Joe is branded by her sexual compulsion as an invasive organism in a patriarchal society that alternately fears and exploits her, and von Trier’s aim is to milk all the unsettling humor from this dynamic that he can, enlisting Seligman to tug at the udders. This elderly book-learned bachelor treats the sordid details of Joe’s life with the innocent excitement of a child who perks up during a rousing bedtime story. He is in many respects an ideal audience, a man who refrains from moral judgment and exhibits no sexual arousal. A self-professed outlier from the patriarchy, Seligman’s interest in Joe’s story is born solely of intellectual curiosity. And von Trier knows that this is an implicitly funny situation precisely because it’s such an improbable one. To extricate sexuality from the dense thicket of societal morality and treat it as just another encyclopedia entry, arbitrary fodder for an elderly autodidact’s amusement…that’s just not a thing that happens. Doubly so when the story is little more than a compendium of abuse.
There’s little use analyzing the recounted details of Joe’s life. They never coalesce into a meaningful narrative shape, except perhaps that of a muddy downward slope of pain and hopelessness, which continues its descent even after the story is over. Joe’s life history contains anything and everything von Trier could think to do with the subject matter of voracious sexual hunger. Sexual discharge in response to emotional trauma, inadvertent homewrecking as a result of having numerous sexual partners, harrowing adventures in S&M, monogamy as the ultimate pleasure-deadening nightmare, sex addiction therapy as a form of behavioral fascism…it’s all in there, and it’s all essentially filler.
What Nymphomaniac is ultimately about is how these events are recounted, and it’s after the first couple of hours that the how finally becomes more worthwhile than a lot of silly flights of fancy and comical infographics. It’s established from the outset that Seligman would appeal to his intellectual composure to absolve Joe of the guilt she feels for a lifetime of aberrant sexual behavior, but it’s only after the divide between her evident spiritual torment and his flattened intellectualism, in which sex is akin to fly-fishing is akin to nail-clipping is akin to numerology is etc., has run its course of ironic amusement that von Trier finally buckles down and starts to take the relationship seriously. Moving into the film’s second half, Seligman grows doubtful and perturbed at some of the more incredible events of Joe’s story, just as she becomes less and less pleased with his diversions, his inferences, his eagerness to interject. Seligman may be without moral judgment or libido, but insofar as he and Joe are engaged in an oratorical power struggle, he remains her umpteenth male oppressor. He stands for the oppression of all condescending, well-meaning, politically correct white males who would insist on the illegitimacy of a woman’s feelings in paradoxical service to doctrinaire feminism.
The ending has been decried as von Trier’s sickest joke, but in its own way it is absolutely fitting, and perhaps the film’s only moment of ideological clarity. Von Trier oversteps all believability to make sure we realize that Seligman is no less vile than any man that Joe has ever encountered in her life. She promptly shoots him in what could not be further from a cathartic vengeance killing. In fact, it’s a total rejection of catharsis; the calm that Joe has sought in Seligman for the entire length of the film has been instantaneously obliterated, and now off she plunges again into the void.
That’s all Nymphomaniac really has to say. That a filmmaker so often accused of misogyny is the one saying it is the point. That it arrives at its turnaround ending after an ungodly four hours is part of the joke. That it will fully please no one is by design. That I hate it is to be expected, I guess. – Stuart