It seems as if Lars Von Trier will never cease trying to get your goat.
The Danish filmmaker’s oeuvre is a critically-contested kaleidoscope of masochism, depression, cruelty, and violence both physical and emotional. One set of viewers might argue that Von Trier is a misogynist, while another set might argue that his choice to externalize his own treacherous emotions in female characters — a choice made, in his own words, because he identifies so little with men — is an act of artistic feminism that belies the flagellatory anguish said female protagonists undergo in his films.
“Divisive” is too soft a word for Von Trier’s work, “polarizing” perhaps too harsh: Even those among us who might take issue with his writing and his characters are hard pressed to find fault with his visual acumen. Actually, 2011’s Melancholia seemed like it might represent a sea change in Von Trier’s work; the shock tactics and manipulation that, for better or worse, defined his earlier and most seminal movies largely disappeared. For perhaps the first time since 1996’s acclaimed Breaking the Waves, Von Trier seemed to care more about his characters and what happened to them than tweaking the audience’s nose — and that shift in focus and intent yielded perhaps his most mature, self-assured cinematic vision to date.
However, Nymphomaniac Volume I — the first two hours of Von Trier’s new four-hour opus — sees Von Trier largely up to his old tricks. An isolated older man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), happens across a beautiful woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying beaten and unconscious in an alley. Samaritan-style, Seligman first offers to call the police or the hospital on the woman’s behalf; when she declines, he instead offers to fix her a cup of tea. Ensconced in Seligman’s monk-like flat, the woman, Joe, attempts to explain the circumstances in which Seligman found her by spinning him the yarn of her life, a Copperfieldian picaresque anchored by one very important fact: Joe is a self-described nymphomaniac.
She is obsessed with and addicted to sexual intercourse, a condition she views as a curse that has largely wrecked her life, or in the name of which she has wrecked it herself. Joe relates a series of titillating and unsettling sexual episodes to her bewildered confessor, and the film pauses in between each “chapter” so that we may hear the two discuss and analyze her story. As the night winds on, we begins to feel that perhaps the outlandish nature of Joe’s tale is exactly that: outlandish, too out there to be fully believed or taken seriously. In fact, one gets the sense that, like Von Trier himself, Joe’s main goal is to shock or provoke her benefactor, and when she continually fails to get a reaction from him beyond the erudite (Seligman is a bookish bachelor, obsessed with literature and the art of angling), her stories grow more and more extreme. Seligman continually questions the veracity of Joe’s story, to which Joe finally, coldly retorts: “What are you going to get more out of? Believing my story or not believing it?”
I identified with the hapless Seligman: Joe’s colorful past invited more questions than engagement. In part, Nymphomaniac attempts to draw a complex portrait of a woman living on the frontier of sexual mores; on the other hand, Von Trier’s illustration of Joe and her exploits so often taste of the plastic, male wish fulfillment that plagues porn and much of the sexual content in pop culture that it’s hard to take Von Trier seriously, if, indeed, he wishes to be taken seriously at all. Seligman’s frequently-articulated disbelief at Joe’s oration echoes our own, as we watch, and one wonders if this juxtaposition in tone is purposeful or the result of sloppy filmmaking. And, if it is purposeful, what is the purpose?
From an American perspective, Nymphomaniac seems both timely and counterproductive. Female sexuality has never been more in the forefront of American public debate due to the far right’s aggressive attack on reproductive health care (among other female-equality issues); and now here we have Joe, who in a way is an embodiment of the sexually-voracious, succubus-like bogeywoman that Republican politicians conjure to shore up their attempts at controlling women’s sex lives. Watch as Joe destroys not only marriages but manhoods, leaving a path of carnage in her lustful wake!
It’s hard to view her character in the same way as the pedophilic middle school teacher Celeste in Alissa Nutting’s 2012 novel, Tampa, or even — to use opposite gender examples — the sex addict Brandon from Michael Fassbender’s Shame or Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s porn addict Jon in Don Jon. These pieces also portray sexual outcasts, hampered in different ways than Joe, but all three pieces make a crucial choice regarding tone: They portray the sexual acts of their respective deviants with sympathy and seriousness but never with the whiff of condescensing fantasy that summons the slippery ghost of pornography into the frame. In Tampa and Shame and Don Jon, the protagonists’ sexual escapades are explicitly depicted in service of a larger goal; in Nymphomaniac, it’s hard to say what the larger goal might be, and thus impossible to determine if Von Trier’s exploitative tactics are merited or effective. (It doesn’t help that Stacy Martin, who plays young Joe in the flashback sequences, is a bird-thin, fresh-faced beauty sitting squarely in the traditional male-gaze wheelhouse, as far as types go).
This disconnect bleeds into every storytelling aspect of the movie. Take, for example, a long sequence in the middle of Volume 1 where a histrionic Uma Thurman plays the wife of one of Joe’s conquests. The man in question has announced that he is going to leave his wife for Joe (much to Joe’s dismay), so said wife shows up at Joe’s door along with her three children to confront and humiliate the young adulteress. Von Trier speaks the language of humiliation with a native ease, and the long, dramaturgical scene is both as hard to watch as it is impossible to look away, but when it’s over and you start to consider it in the larger context of the film’s story and thematic aims, the sequence feels hollow, masturbatory: in a word, pornographic.
Even Joe herself dismisses the incident; after relating it to Seligman, she claims it barely affected her at all. She seems to draw no conclusions or insight from it in either direction: not regret for what she’s wrought, nor vindication that her opposition to love and traditional relationships has scored a victory against them. The incident drops like a stone into water, creating violent ripples in one moment but traceless the next. Why relate it, then? What harvest is yielded, for a viewer, from pointless discomfiture?
The questions that Nymphomaniac Volume I raises are unanswerable because, by definition, it is only the first half of a larger work. Releasing a film of unified vision in two discrete chunks has never struck me as a particularly bright strategy — how can the discrete parts possibly be evaluated as individual films? — and it particularly doesn’t work here, since Volume I ends with an abrupt cliffhanger that leaves young Joe cut off from her favorite coping strategy, to put it in a non-spoilery way.
The conclusion yields little insight into what has transpired in the first two hours, only anticipation for the rest of the story and hope for a clarification of the film’s muddy psychological waters. Volume I is hamstrung in its way by one of Von Trier’s greatest foibles: his preference for shock over incisiveness. Shock is a blunt weapon, a hammer, a fist. It can unhorse us, or leave a bruise, maybe even mangle a bone, but the damage heals and fades. True psychological incisiveness — keen observation, speaking in the language of human emotional truth — is more akin to a knife; it slips between our ribs quietly, and we don’t realize we’re bleeding until it’s too late. Von Trier has proved time and again that he is capable of true insight. However, one can’t help but get the sense, looking at his catalogue, that in the manner of a stymied adolescent he largely prefers to disturb for the sake of it, which is roughly the cinematic equivalent of stuffing your neighbor’s mailbox full of dynamite and running off as the fuse runs down.
It’s entirely possible that despite its broad-strokes, X-rated spectacle, Nymphomaniac will have something of surgical value to say by the time it reaches its final conclusion. It’s also entirely possible that, like the shock of a punch and its bruised aftermath, even Nymphomaniac’s most visceral passages will fade, their emptiness leaving little lasting impression.