Shortly into the first part of Lars Von Trier’s art house opus Nymphomaniac, which is now playing in its entirety at the Hollywood Theatre, Cinema 21 and the Laurelhurst Theater, I experienced a kind of revelation. I have seen plenty of movies with sex. For somebody who lives in the United States, where one is constantly surrounded by commodified and glorified sexual images, going to the movies raises a certain expectation that one will be bombarded with the typical Hollywood depiction of sexuality. Nymphomaniac is different. Nymphomaniac is X-rated and unsexy at the same time. Nymphomaniac could never have been made in Hollywood.
Von Trier’s film is less about sex than it is about addiction, obsession and salvation. It is ugly, scary, confrontational and controversial. At the same time it is paradoxically introverted, beautiful and devoid of action in the Hollywood sense of the word. Its sparseness is partly what makes it frightening. The movie shocks more because of its philosophical implications than because of its graphic scenes of sadomasochism. Von Trier’s film deals with loneliness, death and absence, and explores the various ways in which human beings try to compensate for these feelings and experiences. Nymphomaniac deals with the ideal experiences we expect to have in this life and the extreme steps we often take when life fails to live up to these expectations.
The film’s protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is discovered in the film’s first scene by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who invites her back to his lonely apartment and makes her tea. The two then share a four-hour conversation, which takes place over the course of two films, as Joe recounts her life story in an attempt to explain the circumstances in which she had just been found.
As Joe begins to recount her childhood, she explains key experiences and how they ultimately led to the development of her nymphomania. Over the course of their conversation, the two touch on topics as diverse as fly-fishing, polyphony in music, and the historical split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, all in heartfelt attempts by Seligman to provide allegorical parallels for Joe’s experiences.
The story’s frame narrative is brought to life through extended cinematic flashbacks which detail Joe’s discovery of her sexuality as a child, the chronic loneliness she experienced as she came into adulthood, and her ultimately unfulfilling experiences in love and parenthood with her would-be partner Jerome (Shia LaBeouf).
Nymphomaniac employs frequent use of religious symbolism, invoking elements of Christianity and containing scenes in which Joe’s experiences border on prophetic religious mysticism. Von Trier takes Joe’s nymphomania to a level that approaches parable. He creates a dark and almost depressing spectacle of cultural criticism that is both a shocking rejection of a sex-obsessed western culture and a Foucaultian attack on what Joe condemns as society’s prudish “morality police.” Von Trier attacks a bourgeois society which continually seeks to “validate itself” by enforcing a clinical species of normalcy that rejects and institutionalizes those who deviate from its own textbook definitions of healthy behavior.
Joe is portrayed by Von Trier not as a demon, a transgressor or a psychopath, but as one who has inherited her father’s love of nature; an introvert who is fascinated by the physical and spiritual while being simultaneously unfulfilled by the vapidity of bourgeois society. Taking things into her own hands, Joe seeks out the transcendent experiences which society, in all its dullness, is unable to provide for her.
Nymphomaniac is not an erotic movie. It is sexually explicit while remaining coolly scientific and, at times, humorously detached from its subject matter. In one scene, while Joe is in the midst of one of her sexual exploits with two African brothers, the two get into a mysteriously unresolvable argument in an incomprehensible African language about how exactly they are to go about having their way with her. Sensing that the situation is hopeless, Joe picks up her things and quietly leaves room. The scene is presented with both humor and irony, while being wholly detached from its own sexually explicit nature. Von Trier uses sex as a tool by which to arrive at deeper and more disturbing philosophical issues.
For all its cultural awareness, cinematic mastery and cynicism, Nymphomaniac nevertheless remains a difficult and challenging movie. It takes risks, but these risks do not always translate to success. In the course of ten seconds, the film’s abrupt and difficult ending complicates a plot which had been methodically and scientifically developed over four hours, in many ways backtracking on the film’s own character development. It is a divisive ending that is likely to provoke debate and disagreement among moviegoers—some may find it exciting and dangerous, while others will be left confused and with an acute sense of the ending’s own hostility.
Ultimately, Joe seems to accept her own past of nymphomania. She rejects the idea of sin while accepting the ideas of salvation and transcendence. In the end, Nymphomaniac is a kind of gospel for the transgressors and strangers of society, like Joe, who see no reason to conform and who have no desire to bend.