Objects of Seduction
I am sure that if you don’t already know about Lars Von Trier’s latest installment in post-feminist cinematic provocation that the title of his two new films Nymphomaniac Volume 1 and Volume 2 spiked your curiosity, may have provoked you to raise an eyebrow, or at least take a double take. Just mention the word “nymphomaniac” anywhere, and you can feel the very air current in a room change, just like the way the flow of a river can be disrupted by a change in weather. The mention of nymphomania causes a kind of social climate change. Everything will be going along smoothly. Then nymphomania is mentioned, and next thing you know everyone is in a tither. Are you actually talking about a girl who can’t stop fucking?! Well yes. Nymphomania is shocking, exciting, and taboo, and it also is the subject of Lars Von Trier’s latest two films.
Nymphomania Volume 1 opened here in Tucson two weeks ago and played for two weeks before the release of Volume 2, which opens tomorrow night. I feel like it is important that I write about Volume 1 before Volume 2 because 1) I don’t want Volume 2 to alter my initial perceptions of Volume 1 (and it most assuredly it will alter them because I have no doubt that is Von Trier’s intention); and 2) I think having to wait for Volume 2 is part of the tease game Lars Von Trier is playing. We are left with a very shocking ending in Volume 1. It leaves the audience dying to discover what happens next. But the titillation would not be effective if we didn’t have to wait.
Volume 1 is an object of seduction. It seduces us, and then leaves us hanging so we can’t help but need MORE. We need to see Volume 2 otherwise we will be terribly unfulfilled. Von Trier literally ends Volume 1 with Coitus Interruptus. If we don’t get to Volume 2, we may suffer a severe case of Blue Balls. On that note, I assure you that I will write a review of Volume 2 next week as a follow up to my take on Volume 1.
I was so seduced by Nymphomaniac Volume 1 that I was compelled to watch the movie twice in one week. The movie so successfully seduced me and played with my preconceptions that once simply wasn’t enough. Certainly anyone who has heard of the movie has heard a fair share of scorn and ridicule, references to misogyny and ego-stroking sex trash. This movie isn’t those things at all, but it certainly plays with those social perceptions. Sure the film has its share of self-aware humor, but actually the film is quite sincere, stunningly beautiful and complex, even the X-rated version which I was privileged to see. I was expecting garish, jarring, crude and campy. Instead I found something beautifully emotionally complex, socially relevant, mystical, romantic, and revolutionary in undoing what is expected from all sides of the gender and sex divide.
I was glued to the screen as Joe (played in her older years by Charlotte Gainsbourg and her younger years by Stacy Martin) revealed the history of her nymphomania to a complete stranger Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who picks her up and takes her to his apartment. It wasn’t the sex in the movie that seduced me (and there is no shortage of sex). Rather, I was seduced by Lars Von Trier’s continuing mastery of cinema as an artistic medium and his ability to use that medium to capture the female condition by pushing conventional nerve endings and refusing to play by feminist rules.
I still stand firm that Lars Von Trier is making the most feminist films today because he makes films that are post-feminist in nature. His films break through both the walls of patriarchy and the locked box of feminism (which itself is a closed-system). A woman never could have made this film. Women make films how they want women to seem not necessarily about the complexities of what it really means to be a woman. Von Trier, for all his flamboyant social mishaps, is able to nail (pun intended – if you’ve seen his films) the female condition, especially as it is related to female sexuality and marriage of biblical and social codes that work together to persecute, control and condemn the sexual female body.
Joe’s story is a compelling one as we witness it in Volume 1. We first find her splayed and beaten body lying on the floor of a space that is glowing with an almost cathedral-like light. The stone and cement space is filmed beautifully. As light filters cracks in the walls and the camera circles Joe’s body, the space could be an alley, a church, an industrial ruin. Joe lies in the middle of this space, bleeding from the wrists like a religious effigy suffering stigmata.
If you think of the film’s title — Nymphomaniac — certainly the movie and its central character come with a fair share of stigma attached to them. Clearly, Von Trier’s image of Joe’s stigmata intentional. The word nymphomaniac is not taken lightly in society. In fact, since I have seen the film, I have found myself avoiding calling it by its name in public settings. Instead I refer to it as “the new Lars Von Trier.” I was hesitant to publish anything on the movie because I was reluctant to deal with the backlash of being a woman writing about nymphomania. You know, just mention the words “cunt” and “fuck” and the doors for the trolls are spread wide open, to use a symbol that is used in the film for Joe’s literal cunt. At one point she describes it as automatic sliding doors, like the ones you find in the supermarket. So me telling the story of Nymphomania kind of puts me in a similar position as Joe telling her story. I feel my wrists beginning to bleed as I type this.
As with all of Von Trier’s films, I was deeply affected by Nymphomaniac Volume 1 on a primal emotional and gender-driven level. Once again, he seemed to be speaking of the unspeakable things about the female condition. When women talk about them, we are derided for being sluts or violating the politically correct feminist agenda. When men talk about them, well, they are called misogynists. But Von Trier gets it very right in a way that no other filmmaker has been able to. I was so affected by my first viewing of the film that I used it as my opening discussion with my therapist. As soon as I mentioned the film’s title, my therapist’s eyes bulged in disbelief and a hint of ridicule. I said, “See, that’s the point. Your very response is proof of the problem. Female sexuality is stigmatized. All you have to do is hear the word nymphomaniac and you recoil in shock and judgment.” My therapist nodded in agreement and was rather appalled by her own reaction.
Certainly Lars Von Trier understood that the film’s title would stab right at the heart of sexual morality and a long history of the persecution of female sexuality. Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) –the first film in his triptych which ends with Nymphomaniac – is a film that literally addresses the ‘insane’ history of religious morality as it is forced upon and written upon the female sexual body. Melancholia (2011) shows the cataclysmic results of women playing by the rules colliding with those disrupting the rules. Finally, Nymphomaniac brings the sexual female body overtly to the surface as Joe fucks her way through the story and we watch and Seligman listens.
Seligman finds this beaten girl, takes her home, and subsequently Joe tells the man the story of her life as a nymphomaniac. Her story is ripe with metaphor and fluctuates between beauty and ugliness, humor and tragedy. Joe’s story moves between tales of impersonal sex, sexual acts of rebellion, family tragedy, innocent paternal relations, and finally love. She keeps us hooked, to use a metaphor that runs through the film. In fact, Joe begins telling Seligman her story when she discovers a fishing fly hanging from his wall. Seligman describes the act of fly fishing, and Joe uses that trope and runs with it. She realizes that her pursuit of men was a lot like that of a fly fisherman. Joe and Seligman go fishing together. Seligman lures her along, and she uses his bait to allow her story to evolve.
It must be noted that her name is JOE and not MARY. It is not only a man’s name, but it is the name of the father of Jesus. Maybe the story metaphorically is about a woman attempting to wear the pants in society by taking her pants off, a woman taking control by becoming the “father” of Christianity through the actions of her cunt. Von Trier would be crazy (or sane) enough to put an idea like this to film. Joe’s story provides the perfect merging of “free sexuality” (in which the sexual woman is the liberated politically radical) versus biblical history (in which the sexual woman is the persecuted bad girl). Joe both “chooses” sex over love as some kind of act of political freedom, but she also bears the guilt for what she has done. She continually tells Seligman that she is a “bad person” and asks him if he finds her acts “morally reprehensible.” He doesn’t. He fails to provide her with redemption or condemnation. Rather, Seligman provides rational explanations for everything Joe reveals. Yet there is also a twinkle of enjoyment in his eyes. Seligman justifies Joe’s “stories” because he is enjoying Joe’s acts secondhand.
Joe may fuck a lot of men in the movie, but she is never portrayed as a victim. She is the one making the choices. (So she is wearing the pants as the men take their pants off.) In fact, Joe often seems cold and unfeeling and describes her personal philosophy of “unfeelingness.” She rebels against love. At one point she says, “Love is just lust mixed with jealousy.” (I had to laugh at that because there is a lot of TRUTH in it.) So Von Trier (and ultimately Joe) gives us the picture told in flashback of a young, cold girl fucking her way through history while in the present we have the bruised and beaten Joe wearing men’s pajamas, looking world weary, and telling her story with a fair measure of what appears to be guilt and remorse.
Who is this Joe anyway? This iconic woman found splayed in an alley who “confesses” to a complete stranger her nymphomaniac tales? Is she a victim of the invisible weight of religious history? She talks of guilt and shame, but it is never clear where the guilt and shame are coming from other than an invisible code written into her over biblical time. On the one hand, Joe uses sex for control and freedom from the bonds of convention, but on the other she appears to feel weighed down by guilt for the actions that led her to that alley where Seligman found her stigmatized body. Or is Joe just using the idea of guilt as another lure for Seligman in their continuing game of “Go Fish”?
The structure of the film is critical to understanding how it works. The film is structured like a confession and is delivered to us through Joe’s stories of her life as she narrates them to Seligman. She plays off of Seligman. He tosses some bait, and she bites. She tosses bait back at him, and he bites. Seligman and Joe are fly fishing through storytelling, and we are observers of their game.
On first viewing, I was completely seduced by both the story and the beauty and complexity of the film – such as the moments when Joe and her father look at trees together or the heartbreaking declaration at the end of the film that Joe “can’t feel anything” once she discovers love. I was lulled by the beautiful metaphors – leaves on trees, Joe’s collection of leaves in her scrapbook, and the undercurrent of a “primal innocence” mixed with the old tale of Eve snagging the apple off the tree. You know, that fateful moment when Eve becomes sexual, fucks and undoes innocence and the world. For a movie about a lot of fucking, it is incredibly beautiful. The cinematography and editing are profoundly seductive. In a way, the beauty of the film scrubs Joe of the “ugly” of her actions. Even when we hear the slap of flesh on flesh as Joe fucks man after man, her face is kind of like a blank Madonna reflecting light and emptiness in a way that is beautiful while also being a vacuum.
The first time I watched the film, it is clear that Joe isn’t necessarily a “nice” person given the stories she tells of herself. During a fuck-a-thon with a friend (when they battle to out-fuck men on a train with a bag of chocolate for the prize), Joe forces a blowjob on a married man who is saving his “load” to impregnate his wife. In other words, she seduces him into a blowjob rape and most likely robs him of a child at the same time. Evil woman! To add insult to injury, what could be more shallow then engaging in a fuck-to-the-win game where the prize is something that you eat, shit out, and flush down the toilet? Fortunately, Seligman relieves Joe’s guilt (or her load to mirror what she does to the man on the train) by telling Joe that she probably did the guy a favor by swallowing the dead sperm and saving the living ones for his wife. Thank God and Seligman for science!
Then there is a scene when Joe is responsible for destroying a family. In one of the most humorous and insane scenes in the movie, Joe’s thoughtless fuck-obsession destroys the man H’s family, including his wife and three sons. H isn’t given a name because he is just another letter in Joe’s fuck-alphabet. This scene is funny as hell, including a terrific overblown cameo by Uma Thurman. But as funny as it is, as hard as we laugh (and we do laugh), the emotional situation is sincere and real. There is a thin line between tragedy and comedy, and Von Trier navigates it like a pro. Joe stands cold and silent as this family combusts before her very eyes. She doesn’t care because she doesn’t feel and doesn’t want to feel. It’s her manifesto. Fucking without feeling. In fact, she determines her planned emotional response to the men she fucks by a roll of a die. A number 1 means she’ll say she loves him, and a number 6 means she’ll never talk to him again. It’s all a game for her.
Seligman willingly and at times gleefully plays along as Joe tells these stories. So do we until we reach the end of the film when Joe thinks she has found love, and the movie turns sentimental with a potential for redemption. Seligman questions the viability of this turn. Joe asks him the simple question: “What would make a better story?” (She may as well be asking what would make a better fuck.) Well, for Seligman a love story is better so that’s what Joe gives. She tells the story of reconnecting with the love of her life J. They lick, suck and fuck each other into oblivion. Joe asks J to “fill all my holes.” She means this both literally (fuck all her holes) and metaphorically (fill the spiritual and emotional holes that she has spent her whole life trying to deny). However, this story is not as predictable or tidy as would be expected from a traditional morality fable. When Joe finds love, she discovers tragically that she “can’t feel anything.” This is where Von Trier leaves us as we wait for Volume 2. He tacks on a total melodrama cliffhanger ending where we are dying to know what happens. It’s like he leaves us with a hard-on with nowhere to put it. How clever!
Of course, Von Trier has always bartered in melodrama, and this method of storytelling is particularly resonant in Nymphomaniac Volume 1. Von Trier intentionally manipulates our emotions, just as Joe manipulates Seligman, and Seligman plays right back. In conventional tales, moral flaws lead to the tragedy in a melodrama. The married older widow fucked the young studly gardener! (See Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows – 1955.) Von Trier exposes a moral flaw, but then he questions its viability as a flaw.
At one point in her story, Joe describes a part of the “fuck-a-thon” when the fish stopped biting (or the men stopped fucking her). Seligman describes how that happens when fishing. The fish suddenly stop biting. But then a light rain will come and make the fish feel safe again. This is when the fisherman will use a special fly that looks like an injured fish to lure the bigger fish to bite.
Watching the film the second time, I was reminded of how beautiful the opening sequence is. It starts with a dark screen. Emptiness. The void. Then we hear the sound of rain falling. The camera opens on a light rain dripping off rooftops. In other words, the film opens at the place when the fish have stopped biting. In a sequence of beautiful pans, the camera roams through the rain and down an alley. It stops on a dark hole in a wall that leads to black nothingness. Then finally, the camera focuses on Joe’s battered, bruised, and bloody body lying on the floor. In other words, the injured fish fly is displayed in the light rain to lure the big fish Seligman. Seligman bites the bait and brings Joe back to his apartment. This clear manipulation was not evident the first time I watched the film. I realize in retrospect how crafty Von Trier is. This is all part of Joe’s game and Von Trier’s.
I was as seduced as Seligman first time around. I bought Joe’s story hook, line and sinker. But from that very opening shot on second viewing, I realized that Joe is still playing a game. She has just changed the terms. She is not engaging in a fuck-a-thon on a train. She is going after the big celibate fish – Seligman, and confessing to him is just another way of seducing her prey – Seligman and us.
This does not mean that the questions about the female condition aren’t still relevant to the film. In a way, because our female narrator is so unreliable – (there is no evidence that anything Joe is saying is actually true) –questions regarding how society judges female sexuality become even more evident. If the movie called Nymphomaniac hinges on an untrustworthy construction, then perhaps the religious and social codes that turned female sexuality into pathologies of illness are also untrustworthy constructions. The hysterectomy to cure hysteria. The stoning of women as witches because they were sexual. It is notable that Joe has narrated her father as a gynecologist – representing the rational science side of female sexuality as well as the medicalization of it.
Though I originally was reluctant to publish anything on this film because I didn’t want to deal with the backlash, I now realize that it is critical that I write about it, regardless if what I have to say speaks to anyone. I’m sitting here in a café writing these final sentences, and one of the young men who works here just asked me what I’m writing about this time. I said the movie Nymphomaniac. Every person within earshot turned to look at me with curious and some condemning eyes. Clearly they thought I was writing porn. (Well the movie is rated X.) And clearly the socio-religious construction of the nymphomaniac deserves more attention if this is the effect the mere mention of the word has in a social setting. As long as the term continues to bring shock and connote female sexuality as an illness, then artists, filmmakers, and writers should continue to use the subject to shock. Go Lars Von Trier. I think I’ll incorporate the word into my daily interactions. You know, constructing a narrative that gives people pause to think. “Hi. I’d like a double espresso and two nymphomaniacs. Thank you very much.”
End discussion of Volume 1. Stay tuned for my essay on Nymphomania Volume 2.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.