Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, says the TIFF website, “is guaranteed to be one of 2014's most debated and controversial films,” which instantly sounds as much like a wish as an assessment. Over the last year or so, seemingly from the moment von Trier started shooting the film, entertainment news sources have been supplied with a steady supply of provocation about its unusual cast, its reported length and scope, and its possibly hardcore pornographic content. As if to support the sense of an experience beyond normal processing, the film is being released in two parts of approximately two hours each (unusually, it was available on demand a couple of weeks before going into theatres, perhaps to cultivate some furtive sense of intimacy); at some point, an extended version will follow, apparently with much more explicit material. I’m writing this article after seeing volume one; I’ll follow up another time with any new thoughts prompted by volume two.
As the film opens, Joe, a middle-aged woman, is lying injured in the street, where an older man, Seligman, comes across her. She refuses to let him call an ambulance, but says she’ll accept a cup of tea; later, while she’s recovering in his spare bed, she starts to tell him about the events leading up to that evening, a process requiring, as she conceives of it, that she return virtually to her earliest memories. With few exceptions, everything she tells him from there is sexual in nature, starting in earnest with how she lost her virginity at fifteen and rapidly became promiscuous, seldom caring about the men she was sleeping with. Seligman is a willing listener and quasi-therapist, throwing out metaphors or reference points intended to clarify her sense of herself, or to alleviate occasional outbursts of self-loathing.
With regards to that TIFF quote, I think we’re probably past the point where such knowing creations can become controversial in any kind of high visibility way, and while the film is certainly susceptible to being debated, the terms of the debate are largely predictable before you even see the film. That is: does a woman inherently limit or even demean herself by exercising her sexuality, and what are the conditions – either of external behaviour or internal positioning – that might alter her place on this spectrum? And if sexual experiences are among the most rarified we have – which most of us would agree with in at least some form – then isn’t it arguably logical, from a self-examining utilitarian perspective, to place greater weight on pursuing those experiences, in all their variety, than most of the things we spend time on instead? And if a woman who would follow that kind of project also ends up servicing the passing whims and urges of hundreds of men over her life, well, frankly, so what – isn’t everything in life a transaction?
Rolling the dice
Von Trier weaves his way through this familiar territory in mostly imaginative and nimble fashion. The framework inevitably lends itself to the possibility that Joe is an unreliable narrator, misremembering, embellishing, or outright lying, and Seligman draws on an apparently wide-ranging knowledge of art and science and culture to prod her this way and that, taking issue with her interpretations and self-assessments, near the end outright asserting that he doesn’t believe her account of one incident. In the flashbacks, Joe is played by a young actress called Stacy Martin; it may or may not be deliberate that she doesn’t look much like Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays the older woman, but she’s a very reticent presence, physically unimposing, often talking in little more than a whisper, seldom suggesting any great compulsion or even engagement; that is to say, the classic unformed canvas on which fantasies are painted. The film’s rather unplaceable location supports this sense of disembodiment: all the indications are that it’s set in Britain, but it doesn’t really feel like it, or like anywhere specific.
At various times, Joe’s pursuit of sex is highly structured, as sophisticated as the machinations of the business world that the film briefly parodies. At one stage, she tells us, she was seeing seven or eight men a night, which she seems to recall primarily as a scheduling challenge; at another, unable to keep straight all the male voices on her answering machine, she adopts a practice of basing her response on a roll of the dice (one: she tells them she loves them; six: she never returns the call). At various points the film plunges into numerology, playing with the notion that her activity has mathematical significance (the wittiest expression of this comes when, after her companion has failed to squeeze into a particularly tight parking space, she takes the wheel and does it perfectly), and Van Trier sometimes finds ways to graphically represent these ideas, as if partly intending the picture as (of all things!) a teaching aid. The pedagogical (or maybe just loud-mouthed) impulse also comes across in how Seligman discourses on such matters as fly fishing, Edgar Allen Poe, and Bach.
At other times though, the abstract momentum of her activities crashes into the tangible pain of human intimacy. A lover sets out to leave his wife for her, bringing down the vengeful weight of the wronged woman (Uma Thurman in a memorable vignette); she finds herself strangely attracted to one man who keeps reappearing in her life (Shia LaBoeuf), and the older Joe comments repeatedly on her own callousness, denying herself even the addict’s consolation of acting on perceived need (it was merely lust, she says). Sometimes, her actions represent a more conventional mode of losing herself in sex, as when for example she leaves the bedside of her dying father for a break, and has a quickie with the first hospital employee she finds. Most of the men in the film make no more impact on us than they do on her (at one point Van Trier reduces several dozen of them to a rapid succession of penis shots), which intensifies the danger attaching to those who, by whatever human mystery, somehow come to embody something deeper to her.
Writing here a few years ago about Van Trier’s last film Melancholia, I commented among other things on how the film depicts the emptiness of our structures and devices and rituals, ultimately suggesting we’re so eroded by them, even the pending end of the world can’t galvanize us to reclaim our inner selves. Nymphomaniac, at least based on the first volume, doesn’t feel much like watching Melancholia, but it extends its fascination with the prospect of oblivion, focusing down to its purest and most pervasive expression, the brief post-orgasmic embrace of death. Even if it seldom seems truly new or revelatory, it’s much more fascinating than not. Come back soon (if, after the above, you can stand the prospect) to see whether volume two changes this assessment.