By Preston Wilder
They said it couldn’t be done – but here we are, about to watch Nymphomaniac at the Friends of the Cinema Society in Nicosia (Volume 1 screens tonight and tomorrow, having already screened twice; Volume 2 starts on Friday, takes a three-day break then screens again on June 10, 11 and 12). It was bound to happen, of course. Even with summer, and the World Cup, and downloads, and the film society’s ageing audience – especially with the film society’s ageing audience – sex still sells, and the latest film by Lars Von Trier has shagging in spades. This is not his best film, not by a long shot. In fact, despite its epic length, it’s likely to go down as a minor work in his oeuvre. But it may be his most effective provocation in a career full of provocations.
Is it porn? Not at all. The real problem isn’t explicitness but kink – especially in Vol. 2, when Joe (Stacy Martin, growing into Charlotte Gainsbourg) starts dabbling in deviant sexual behaviour like a consensual (but still extreme) S&M relationship. But there’s another reason why Nymphomaniac isn’t porn: because porn is purposely mindless whereas this is incurably self-conscious, being tormentedly ‘about’ sex.
Sex vs. love, and the “love-fixated society”. Sex vs. religion, and the split between body and soul. Joe’s beloved dad (Christian Slater) likes to talk about trees in the forest – and he claims their “naked trunks”, when their leaves fall in the winter, are actually their souls, spelling out Von Trier’s message that sex (the body), far from being shameful, is akin to the spiritual. The film’s turning point – it’s really one film, despite the division into two parts – comes towards the end of Volume 1, when Dad is dying in hospital (he’s by far the favourite parent; her mum, recalls Joe, “was what you would call a cold bitch”) and Joe can only watch him die. “You should take a break,” says a doctor – so she staggers off, weeping, finds a young assistant in a nearby lab and has sex with him, her eyes shut tight. Sex as (literally) life, a necessary counter to the spectre of mortality.
Yes, but then what? “I can’t feel anything,” moans our heroine at the very end of Volume 1, having given herself over to unbridled nymphomania – leading to the twisted sexuality of Volume 2, an ever-more-desperate quest to “fill all my holes”. The whole film is actually a series of flashbacks, the framing device being a long conversation between Joe and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a middle-aged man who finds her on the street, bruised and beaten. It’s my own fault, says guilt-ridden Joe: “I’m just a bad human being”. Seligman is amiable, tolerant, staunchly sympathetic (he’s also a virgin); he’s Western intellectualism personified, punctuating Joe’s account of her life with erudite digressions ranging from Bach’s polyphony to the history of the Christian Church – but he’s also exposed, by the end, as a hypocrite, hinting at Von Trier’s true provocation.
Nymphomaniac isn’t ultimately about sex. It certainly isn’t about the ‘obscenity’ of showing sex onscreen, a debate that was over in Von Trier’s native Denmark about 40 years ago (admittedly, it’s taken longer in Cyprus). It’s about the self-righteous rules Western society still enforces, even as it claims to be liberal – a sore point with Von Trier, who was banned from the Cannes Festival a couple of years ago after mischievously claiming to have “some sympathy with Hitler”. When Joe warns against the foolishness of banning ‘offensive’ words (“Each time a word becomes prohibited, you remove a stone from the democratic foundation”), or stands up to the passive-aggressive agents of therapy culture (calling them “Society’s morality police”), or says that a paedophile who resists his impulses – far from being ‘evil’ – “deserves a bloody medal”, that’s when Nymphomaniac drops the arthouse-porn curtain to reveal the angry misfit behind it.
Sex as a mask: Joe feels the loneliness – the fear that her manic coupling conceals a lack of empathy – and Von Trier does too. Sex as empowerment: Joe is a woman in charge (significantly, the name is unisex, linked to the dodgy implication that a sexually assertive woman is being somehow ‘masculine’), even, or especially, when she gives up control to her whip-wielding master. Nymphomaniac isn’t much of a film, in terms of filmmaking. The disjointed editing seems lazy at worst, arbitrary at best, the plotting is often facile, the dialogue could’ve used a few more drafts; compared to, say, Antichrist – the opening sequence of which gets reprised here – it’s a much less beautiful movie. But this ragged, silly, very personal drama isn’t trying for beauty. What can you say about a film that leads with the line “I discovered my c*** as a two-year-old”? It’s a provocation.
DIRECTED BY Lars Von Trier
STARRING Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia LaBoeuf
Denmark 2013 118 mins (Vol. 1);
123 mins (Vol. 2)