8 Ways of Looking at Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac: Volume 1’

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You’ve seen the pervy O-face posters, the seemingly endless stream of NSFW trailers, and the painful-looking stills. Now, it’s finally here: Nymphomaniac. Well, the first of its two parts… on VOD (it premieres in theaters next Friday, March 21; Volume 2 will make its US debut next month). Blowing in on a wave of hype as Lars von Trier’s most shocking film — and that’s saying a lot — it’s already inspiring fanboy raves and feminist freakouts. This was all to be expected, as Von Trier is among the most divisive voices in global cinema. Moderate reactions to his films are hard to find.

Personally, while I’m a Von Trier fan and enjoyed (I know that sounds sick, but it does contain its own kind of not-purely-sexual fun) Volume 1, I’m not going to make any final decisions about it until I’ve seen the entire, four-hour experience. For now, I want to take a look at the first half of Nymphomaniac using a few of the many possible frameworks it suggested to me. Not that you’d know it amid all the high-pitched rhetoric for and against the film, but it’s actually got quite a bit going on below the surface.

Spoiler alert: This post discusses plot points from throughout Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (and is probably best read after watching the movie, anyway).

An Attempt to Make Love Ridiculous

The most intense scene in Volume 1 doesn’t have any sex in it at all. In an attempt to get rid of a lover who’s become too clingy, protagonist and self-identified nymphomaniac Joe (played in the present by Charlotte Gainsbourg and in flashbacks by Stacy Martin) calls his bluff, telling him she knows he’ll never leave his wife for her. It backfires when he shows up at her door… with his wife (Uma Thurman) and three young sons hot on his tail. Although she’s only in the film for a few minutes, Thurman gives the performance of her career as the distraught wife, dementedly inserting herself in her husband’s extramarital affair in the guise of teaching her children about Daddy’s new life. (Her question, “Would it be all right if I showed the children the whoring bed?,” is bound to become the film’s most-quoted line.)

Taken together with the silliness of Jerôme, whose appeal as the only man Joe has ever had romantic feelings for is made even more confounding by the fact that the character is played by Shia LaBeouf, this seems like Von Trier knocking love off its pedestal, pointing out how irrational and ridiculous it can be. Sex addiction, in Nymphomaniac, often comes across as a desperate attempt to escape from a sort of mental, emotional hell — and that hell might just be romantic love.

Civilization vs. Nature

Nymphomaniac is the story of Joe’s life, but the way she tells that story is arguably more important than its content. She meets Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an erudite older man, when he finds her semi-conscious and bleeding in an alley, and brings her to his home for a cup of tea. Although they get along just fine, their conversation as she recovers sets them up as two opposing archetypes. He loves literature and classical music, harbors deep knowledge about any number of arcane subjects that he eagerly brings to bear on this discussion of her past; consumed as she is by her nymphomania, Joe is entirely ignorant about these intellectual pursuits. Seligman is forever attempting to make sense of behavior she is convinced proves her utter, irredeemable badness. When she tells him about having anonymous sex in the hospital where her father was dying, he replies, “It’s extremely common to react sexually in a crisis.” The relationship between Joe and Seligman is the relationship between nature — brash, destructive, uncontrollable — and civilization. He very literally brings her out of the wild, attempts to domesticate her and intellectualize her wild proclivities. And while Seligman is supposedly nursing Joe back to health, she’s many magnitudes more powerful.

Joke Casting

Why did Lars von Trier cast Shia LaBeouf — bad actor, “art” monster, social media liability — as the film’s heartthrob, Jerôme? Well, there’s this. Really, though, I think he plays Joe’s romantic ideal for the same reason growly, past-his-prime Christian Slater shows up as her gentle, nature-loving dad: these casting choices are supposed to take us out of the film a little bit, remind us not to take everything we’re seeing at face value. We’re not supposed to get wrapped up in the love story or the father’s fate, and casting so against type (in Slater’s case) and talent (that’s LaBeouf) seems like a strategy for separating the viewer from the narrative.

Wes Anderson Parody

Admittedly, this one could be entirely in my mind, the result of seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel just a few days before Nymphomaniac. (For what it’s worth, at least one other viewer agrees with me.) But I could find no explanation for certain moments in Von Trier’s film other than that they were ridiculing the kind of fussy, twee stylistic tics that have become Anderson’s signature. Of course, the filmmakers already shared a frequent collaborator, Willem Dafoe (who appears in Grand Budapest and Nymphomaniac: Volume 2, and had this to say about the difference between the two directors). And this is hardly the first movie Von Trier has split into chapters, the way Anderson is fond of doing.

It was the increasingly ridiculous explanatory text that often accompanies Joe’s story that stoked my suspicions: we see various unnecessary mathematical and scientific diagrams, and at one point, numbers flash across the screen, recording each perfunctory thrust from the scene in which she loses her virginity. When you start looking for them, though, there are parallels everywhere, from Joe’s relationship with her father and the whole perverse coming-of-age narrative to Seligman’s delight in tidbits of information and the storytelling structure that is one of Anderson’s greatest obsessions.

Joe as Keyser Söze

In telling her story, Joe riffs on various items in Seligman’s room, from an Edgar Allan Poe book to the rugelach he uses a cake fork to eat. You could take this at face value and assume this stuff is jogging her memory — or you could begin to suspect, as I did, that it’s actually directing what she says. Whether this means Joe is a straight-up liar, actively deceiving Seligman, or just that she’s subconsciously allowing her surroundings to fill in gaps in her memory, I can’t tell. But I’m interested in the implications of the possibility that this account of her lifelong “nymphomania” is the story Joe thinks Seligman wants to hear, more than the story she desperately needs to tell.

A Rejoinder to Critics

Lars von Trier has a vicious sense of humor, and can never resist an opportunity to confound, respond to, or otherwise infuriate critics. If you call him a misogynist, he’s going to make a film called Antichrist in which — well, we’ve been over it. Nymphomaniac is, among many others things, more of the same, plus an extra “fuck you” to those who have accused him of being exploitative. But perhaps the funniest and most pointed response to critics is the moment when Seligman indulges in a digression related to his Jewish heritage, insisting that being anti-Zionist is not the same as being anti-Semitic. This is, of course, a nod to the trouble Von Trier found himself in a few years ago at Cannes, when he made some controversial (and widely misinterpreted) remarks about his own confusing lineage, Nazis, Hitler, and Israel.

But this theme doesn’t just come through in the details. In Noel Murray’s excellent review of Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 for The Dissolve, he suggests that the entire structure of the film is meant to mimic the relationship between the artist (like, say, Von Trier) and the critic:

Joe’s extended, illustrated anecdotes of how she learned to control men through sex isn’t all there is to Nymphomaniac. The movie isn’t a monologue. It’s a conversation between a woman trying to explain herself as dispassionately as possible and the eager intellectual who keeps interrupting her with questions and analogies, trying to fit everything she says into a form he can analyze — and thus understand. The whole first half of Nymphomaniac is like a passive-aggressive argument between an artist and a critic.

Misogynist Screed

This is always the charge against Von Trier, right? He hates women! Look at the hell he put Björk through — on- and off-screen — in Dancer in the Dark! Look what he made Charlotte Gainsbourg do to her most, er, womanly part in Antichrist! I’ll have more to say about the widely held belief that Lars Von Trier is a misogynist in a future piece, but for now, yes, Volume 1 provides plenty of circumstantial evidence for those who want to beat that drum.

The film’s title and premise may be enough for some: not only is this a movie about a female sex addict, but Von Trier had to slap the sexist, outdated term “nymphomaniac” on it — and her. Not only is Joe (through some lenses) an archetypal slut, but she refers to her mother as a “cold bitch.” Then there’s the whole male-gaze-on-overdrive thing, the way we watch Joe fuck man after man, dressed up like a schoolgirl and a streetwalker and a secretary. And beyond the obvious, there could be some unsettling subtext to the idea that our female protagonist represents savage, untamed nature, while Seligman is the embodiment of civilization, culture, and intellect — a disturbing dichotomy if you perceive Von Trier as elevating civilization above nature, and see the two characters less as individuals and more as stand-ins for their gender.

Lindy West’s write-up of the film at Jezebel is a sort of response as play-by-play (spoiler: she did not like it). Here’s the most salient section, which takes issue with Von Trier instrumentalizing women’s sexuality in a way that may be harmful to them in the real world:

[Nymphomaniac] uses women’s bodies to create a spectacle, to make a point, but I’m not sure that the point actually serves women. It’s counterproductive to disseminate the idea — for reasons not thoroughly justified — that hot teenage girls are roaming around train cars searching for penises to blow. Because what happens in real life is that teenage girls are roaming around train cars searching for safe seats to sit in so they can fucking get places without creepy dudes bothering them. There might be some artistic utility in flipping that truth, in exposing the emotional barrenness of that fantasy, but is it worth it? And is a male director the best person to do that job? And are naked, sexualized female bodies the most responsible tool to use?

(The purpose of this piece isn’t to take issue with any of these interpretations, but I can’t allow myself to quote the above passage without mentioning how unlikely I find it that Nymphomaniac is sending any kind of message to the male population about the behavior they should expect from teenage girls on trains.)

Subversive Feminist Statement

But wait! As with many of Von Trier’s films — yes, even Antichrist! — there is also ample support for radical feminist readings of (the first half of) Nymphomaniac. You can, for instance, look at the frequent excuses Seligman makes for Joe’s actions as a sign that we’re not supposed to believe Joe is as evil as she insists she is. As the on-screen audience for her tale, he is, after all, the viewer’s stand-in. When she finishes recounting the day she and a girlfriend, as teenagers, competed to have sex with as many men as possible for the duration of a train ride, Joe expects Seligman to scorn her. Instead, he suggests that by coercing a married man into a blowjob, she may have (in a truly roundabout way) helped him impregnate his wife. “I saw it as a pleasurable and humorous story,” Seligman says. The excuses he makes for Joe are ridiculous, but they’re also clearly meant to interrupt any intentions we have of condemning her outright.

There’s also a vignette that deserves a place alongside the SCUM Manifesto and movies like Teeth and Hard Candy in the Radical Feminist Camp Hall of Fame. Sometime after the train incident, Joe and her friend B are at the center of group that’s two parts teen-girl gang, one part cult. They chant “mea maxima vulva” and are forbidden from sleeping with any man more than once. Love is these girls’ #1 enemy.

You could come away from this assuming Von Trier thinks teenage girls are heartless predators, but as we saw above, he seems just as suspicious of love as they are. Not to mention the fact that, as Murray points out, there’s a sneaky parallel between this group’s rules and those of Dogme 95, the filmmaking collective Von Trier co-founded in the mid-’90s. (Incidentally, the latter’s guidelines were known as the “Vow of Chastity.”) This, like making her the artist in the artist-vs.-critic dialogue Murray identifies, is just one more piece of evidence that Joe is the character to whom Von Trier feels the closest; if anyone is the director’s surrogate in Nymphomaniac, it’s her. She certainly wouldn’t be the first of his tortured heroines that the director has admitted to not only empathizing with, but modeling after himself. The fact that Von Trier so frequently creates female alter egos doesn’t necessarily make his films “feminist”… but it’s certainly worth considering.