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April 4, 2014

Lars von Trier likes to make thematic “trilogies”: triples of movies with more of a thematic than a narrative connection. His latest, the Depression Trilogy he started with Antichrist and continued in Melancholia concludes with Nymph()maniac. Due to its hefty four-hour running time — the “director’s cut” being even longer” — it has been released in two parts, which follow directly after each other rather than standing alone as two separate narrative arcs.

But despite the massive size of the film, and despite the shocking subject matter, it’s well worth the effort to watch it all the way through. This is one of von Trier’s most cinematically complex and challenging works, and it’s definitely the most visually inventive.

The first thing that must be addressed is the raw, frank sexuality; von Trier seems at first to be aiming for that grey area between arty and adult occupied by the likes of 9½ Weeks and Last Tango in Paris, but he pushes the envelope — his favorite pastime — with the sheer volume of explicitly-depicted sex. And yet, unlike Blue is the Warmest Colour, it almost never feels like a prurient grab for notoriety. Indeed, throughout the first part the most notable aspect of the sex is how boring it becomes, and how quickly.

Yes, you can point to all the other ways von Trier loves grandstanding and claim that selecting a topic which makes all of this graphic sex integral to the plot is just a licentious excuse. There may even be some truth to that. But watching the film itself, it seems farfetched; there is little here to titillate the audience, and indeed nothing that they can’t get easier and cheaper online.

Yes, you can point to the casting of von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg and lithe newcomer Stacy Martin as the older and younger versions of the main character and claim that this is just a way to get attractive women naked on screen. But would this story even work with a male lead? A man compulsively screwing his way through life is normally held up as an idol, like James Bond, or an object of faint ridicule, as in Thanks for Sharing. Even a less attractive woman would lead the audience to think she’s just lonely and desperate for affection, not compulsive and damaged.

No, von Trier seems to be honestly exploring the depressive psyche through a comorbid addiction, albeit one particularly suited to grabbing attention and generating infamy. And over top of that he’s layering a feminist commentary: we only pathologize this behavior in women. A woman takes control of her own life and pursues her own desires, and we as a culture brand her with a scarlet ‘N’ as a warning that other women had better keep their place.

The exploration itself takes the form of a sort of philosophical dialogue. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) — the “happy man” — finds Joe (Gainsbourg) lying beaten in an alley. He helps her back to his apartment, where she tells him she’s a terrible person. Intrigued, Seligman probes deeper, and Joe responds by starting an accounting of her life in eight chapters, each inspired by something around the walls of Seligman’s sparely-decorated room.

In the first part, comprising the first five chapters, we watch the sexual development of Joe’s younger self (Martin), how she learned to use her sexuality to comfort herself, and to establish a measure of control in her life. We meet a childhood friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), who started down the same path as Joe, followed by the young man, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), whom Joe asks to take her virginity — the one man she pulls away from and yet finds herself perversely drawn back to again and again. She maintains that she ruins lives — like “Mrs. H” (Uma Thurman), the wife of a man who mistakenly believes that Joe wants him to leave his family for her — and then expresses indifference over them. She agonizes that her only reaction in any situation is sexual — she even “lubricates”, as she puts it, at the deathbed of her beloved father (Christian Slater) — and yet she cannot feel anything.

As we move from the first part to the second, her emotional numbness begins to extend to the physical. She settles down — for a time — with Jerôme, but still searches desperately for newer, more intense sensations. She seeks out more partners, including a particularly brutal and unhealthy BDSM practitioner (Jamie Bell). When her lifestyle causes problems at work, she tries a support group, but finally quits and starts working for a loan shark (Willem Dafoe) who teaches her to put her experiences to use in the field of debt collection. She finally takes in a protégé (Mia Goth), who eventually becomes her first female lover, and this leads her eventually to the alley outside Seligman’s apartment.

Through it all, Seligman acts as her interlocutor. He draws parallels from her story to his own fields of interest, from fly-fishing to Bach to Eastern Orthodoxy. He attempts to provide a less dour interpretation of her actions. As Joe tells her stories, Seligman’s commentaries — with von Trier’s oddly didactic, theatrically stilted phrasings — provide a voice for the film’s ideas. Joe expounds her thesis of guilt and shame, which may itself only be the product of this evening’s events; Seligman responds with the antithesis, that Joe should reject the shame pushed on her by a patriarchal society. Indeed, he may be the only person she’s ever met who could respond to her so dispassionately.

The interactions between Seligman and Joe as narrators and the reenacted memories are where the film gets really fascinating as a film, and as one that seems conscious that it is a film. Far removed from the self-congratulatory “realism” of Dogme 95, Nymphomaniac finds von Trier engaging in all sorts of visual experiments. As Joe remembers the two groups of thrusts making up her first intercourse, her memory superimposes “3+5” over the scene. “Fibonacci numbers”, Seligman announces, and the sequence is illustrated for us out to “5+8=13”. Parallel parking is illustrated with a detailed geometric diagram. Bach’s polyphony is echoed not only sexually, but visually in triptych. In fact, visual echoes are all over the place, pointing everywhere to the analogies Seligman draws as he tries to understand Joe’s story.

Maybe explicit, graphic sex is just a flashy lure after all, and von Trier has merely done a good job of reading the cinematic river and finding the right place to drop his fly. If he really meant to titillate, he’s done an awful job. Maybe he really is a misogynist who means to exploit his female characters, but to see Joe as exploited is to infantilize her, and to deny her the agency she stridently claims.

Joe is indeed an addict, but she owns her addiction. She is depressed, and her impulses drag her down into negative feedback between her depression and her compulsion. But it’s the shame that sets up the feedback, and the shame is purely the product of a society that praises sexual promiscuity in the male and pathologizes it in the female. And when Joe does take control of her compulsions, it will be out of a need to escape the feedback, not out of shame over the desires she was born with.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.


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