A trip to the movie theater is an experience of what the culture wants to sell you; often, it’s sex, in some form or fashion. Which is why it’s been interesting to see movies about sex addiction multiply in the multiplex, with films that could be puncturing our society’s obsession with sex next to films that are mostly about sex. Even if they’re really just about explosions.
The reason why sex-addiction films have been trending as of late has felt a bit cultural: after all, the first generation of kids to grow up with porn just one click away are coming into their own as of late, and that creates a whole new cohort of people who have invented their own definitions of sexuality. And with that new round of kids comes a new round of art that wants to look at and detail the pains and frustrations that come along when people have all the options in the world and end up dealing with the corrosive effects of sex addiction.
But if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that movies about sex addiction, on average, aren’t very good. Also: most importantly, every single film about sex addiction will feature a scene with the protagonist coming and crying. However, Lars von Trier has taken on that ridiculous, sometimes hilarious, topic with his sex epic Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 and Volume 2, and he’s quite possibly succeeded at making a successful sex-addiction film.
Perhaps because it’s not really about sex addiction. Von Trier has a scene where the titular nympho, Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, goes to a sex addicts meeting, where, hilariously, she says, “My name is Joe and I’m a nymphomaniac.” Everyone corrects her, and she tries the more politically correct term of sex addict… until she can’t take it anymore. For Von Trier, Joe’s sex addiction — and that she’s female — is a front for his favorite themes: wildness and nature versus the rules of society, and the way that Joe’s addiction could be a metaphor for (or digression from) Von Trier’s own course as an artist.
To support that, the sex in Nymphomaniac isn’t particularly hot. It’s comic, it’s mechanical, it’s sometimes gross, and it’s all coming from the perspective of a woman telling a story about her life that may or may not be true. The camera is looking at her clinically, in a fashion. Every scene is shot and framed with bodies in front of stark white walls. The lighting is harsh and florescent-feeling. That distance feels important to the film, and it’s why I was able to take it seriously, in the audience, feeling all the feelings and wondering about where Von Trier was taking this story.
Nymphomaniac is a film about sex addiction that works — unlike another film by a well received director, Steve McQueen’s Shame. By the time McQueen’s harrowing film opened theatrically in Albany, New York, I had read enough reviews and had seen enough clips from the film to realize that it was, most likely, a hilarious piece of overwrought art-film crap, and a prime candidate for a film that would be improved by drinking at the movies, a treat best saved for the oeuvre of Nicolas Cage, not the most ponderous Oscar-bait films of the year.
I went to see Shame with a flask of bourbon, sitting in the front row, ready for Michael Fassbender’s penis (and his pain) and the story of how he was an inexplicably British-accented professional guy who has a fancy job, a hard drive that’s “filthy,” and a hot-mess sister played by Carey Mulligan who sings “New York, New York” at the Boom Boom Room for 20 minutes or more. Shame was exactly as silly as I expected — beautifully framed and filmed. Every time Fassbender’s character looked at porn or had sex, it mostly seemed awesome, despite the fact that it was supposed to be compulsive, bad, gross, addictive, and unhealthy behavior, with unsettlingly homophobic undertones to his downward spiral of sex.
The acting was committed and the film was beautiful, but there were all these elements devoted to a thin, barely developed script that was, I guess, trying to make Fassbender’s character into an everyman — Michael Fassbender! His penis is just like yours! — when he was kind of like a romance-novel parameter for a Folger’s coffee ad.
His job wasn’t specified beyond the parameters of “fancy office job,” his origins weren’t specified beyond “he grew up in New Jersey but moved there from the UK,” he lived in magical, expensive Midtown in relative splendor, and you had no idea what was driving his Manhattan existence. By the time the film gets to his climatic threesome of sadness with two hookers, a closeup on Fassbender’s face in orgasm, a howl of pain, you hear Mulligan’s voice over the soundtrack saying, “We’re not bad people, we’re just from a bad place.” Fine. But the writing was so vague that it was impossible not to think that said “bad place” was New Jersey. Needless to say, when I saw the film in the theater, my date and I were the jerks giggling in the front row, while the rest of the audience seemed primed for searing, soaring drama and seriousness. We got shushed while we were talking during the credits.
After seeing Shame, I thought that maybe the idea of “sex addiction” was just impossible for a filmmaker to dramatize, since the camera, that capricious machine, makes sex look amazing on film. In the hands of a sensualist like Steve McQueen, of course the sex was going to look great, even if it was supposed to be bad and painful.
So in the category of “great directors,” sex addiction worked for Von Trier (as much as any topic works for Von Trier, since they’re never quite about the topic and more about his pain), and sex addiction led to Steve McQueen’s worst film. But how does the topic fare with newbie directors? Last year’s Don Jon, the film written, directed, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, isn’t quite about sex addiction, per se. It’s about a man addicted to porn, and it had the world’s greatest viral marketing: it ran porn-heavy trailers in front of free porn on sites like YouPorn.
Don Jon is a weird choice for an actor’s vanity project. For one, Gordon-Levitt chose to, essentially, play The Situation from Jersey Shore as a porn-addicted mook. The movie is enveloped in Jersey culture: bad accents, worse haircuts, and a pumped-up, totally unbelievable Gordon-Levitt saying, “There’s a couple of things I love, my boys, my car, my family, my church, my girls, and my porn,” with quick cuts establishing his fluency in each subject. There are explicit scenes from porn cut with explicit, somewhat adoring shots of Gordon-Levitt in explicit sex scenes.
But once the film gets past the silly Jersey playacting, and Scarlett Johansson’s somewhat believable, totally charming Jersey girl comes on the scene, the film calms down and tries to make a point about how boys and girls have such a sad time together these days. The false expectations that come from a sex life of masturbating to porn clash with the false expectations from cheesy rom-coms and a woman’s expectations of how a man “should be” in life. Whether it’s one to one could be argued, but that’s besides the point. Once Julianne Moore’s character appears, it’s clear that Gordon-Levitt, as a writer and director, has something on his mind about relationships and how people relate to each other, and the result is fairly touching. The sex scenes even get meaningful, with less flashy porn cuts for the sake of awesomeness. It’s just strange that you have to go through a lot of “Jersey” drag to get to that point where the film is trying and it’s decent.
Like Don Jon, Thanks for Sharing, the first film by The Kids Are Alright cowriter Stuart Blumberg, was another film where I saw the trailer and thought, what is this crap? It played in front of nearly every film I saw last fall, seeming like an odd little tone-deaf “comedy.” I expected the resulting Mark Ruffalo/Gwyneth Paltrow joint to be as intolerable as the Josh Gad pratfall that ends the ad. But, like Shame and Don Jon before it, Thanks for Sharing is another film that’s simply difficult to advertise for, honestly, in the span of two minutes. Basically the film made by Blumberg after he got some traction, Thanks for Sharing was sold as a comedy about sex addiction, which meant that it had Ruffalo and Paltrow cutely flirting with each other and Josh Gad being a “funny” fat man in the other corner.
But instead of a wacky comedy, Thanks for Sharing is actually a fairly serious movie about addiction, and the process of being in a program for addiction, and how the addict deals with their urges in day-to-day life. And it’s good. In fact, it’s surprisingly good, and that’s because each character in it, from Tim Robbins’ zenned-out mentor to Ruffalo’s ever-attractive type to Gad’s slovenly doctor, is facing their addictions, one day at a time. The film lets the audience sit in on the addiction meetings in a way that illustrates what it’s like to be working with this disease.
And the sex isn’t beautiful, or erotic, or amazing. It’s mostly off-screen, or part of the problem, and it’s used as a tool of the story, not a point where the camera luxuriates in the sights. It even addresses the idea that, to the average person, sex addiction sounds made-up as a disease, not helped by the idea that in popular culture, it’s a catch-all phrase as real-life celebrities enter rehab, be it David Duchovony or Michael Douglas. The seriousness driving Thanks for Sharing made it a pleasant surprise, and possibly the best recent film actually wrestling with what it’s like to be a sex addict.
Between Thanks for Sharing and Nymphomaniac, it does seem like there’s a way to talk about sex addiction on film: either take it way too seriously, or not seriously at all. Whether Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac takes this trend and buries it in the ground — there’s an argument to be made that it does — or sex addiction films will persist remains to be seen. There’s a wide array of perspectives on sex and sex addiction that haven’t really gotten beyond this initial array of mostly heterosexual dudes flummoxed by the world.
It’s been fascinating to see directors wreck themselves on the shoals of sex addiction as something big enough for a movie. You can see the temptation — sex addiction provides something for everybody, visual pleasure but also a reason to have sex scenes that mean something, that are more than just rutting. In a sex-saturated world, where it’s available in new and different ways by the minute, there are reasons to tell more stories about how sex affects us and what we learn from it. But if sex-addiction films are going to justify their existence and reason for being, there needs to be more fueling the story than just a bro who loves too much.