Persona Non Grata: Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac

By Michael Sicinski

[Note: This review contains SPOILERS.]

A few technical notes as we begin to talk about Lars von Trier’s latest film:

1) For the purposes of this discussion, I will refer to Nymphomaniac as a single work, rather than treating its two-volume release as an integral part of its construction.

2) I will refrain from adopting the graphic (pun intended: “explicit” as well as “typological”) stylization of the title, whereby the ‘o’ in Nymphomaniac is rendered with parentheses, so as to form a pseudo-vaginal glyph. Not only is this a patently silly affectation, but said affectation is, I think, a bit of a dare, designed to ensure that any writing on the film has the potential to look patently ridiculous. I choose to opt out of this particular game of Chicken.

Turning to Nymphomaniac itself, I believe this is a film that finds von Trier moving in several new directions, as well as returning to some older strands in his work that he’s abandoned for quite some time. In the course of their lengthy discussions about sexuality—with the protagonist’s own posited as a possible case study of the human animal—Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) refer a number of times to polymorphous perversity, Freud’s theory of the original unbound erotogenic potential of the infantile body. In its own way, Nymphomaniac is a study in polymorphously perverse storytelling, a film that can veer from abject tragedy to absurdity to horror and sexual excitation and back through these modes, without cheapening that which is serious or placing that which is comical under the sign of guilt.

Narratively, Nymphomaniac is organized in a manner that reflects a new frankness in von Trier’s methodology: it is, fundamentally, a film about storytelling, and has no qualms announcing itself as such. It’s not just that it combines picaresque movement with the general stasis of Scheherazade’s tales as Joe details her complex personal/sexual history to Seligman, recounting her education of the senses from “discovering her cunt” as a small child, to learning of the wonders of nature from her father (Christian Slater), and eventually wending her way towards the loss of her virginity at the hands of local rogue Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf). It’s that the almost preternatural chance recurrences of Jerôme in Joe’s life/story, along with various other points of improbable detail, brings the veracity or lack thereof of her account to the film’s narrative forefront. While Joe maintains that her story is true against Seligman’s claims that the tale as told beggars belief, she also poses the rhetorical question of whether or not her story is better and more satisfying with the coincidences intact, with Jerôme, her great love/great sexual antagonist, as the dominant through-line.

It is highly unusual for von Trier to place this kind of emphasis on the actual spinning of the yarn. But this may have to do with the fact that Nymphomaniac is a film of action, whereas many of his recent films have been about the paralysis of depression, reflected not only in their dramatic contents but also, and above all, in their cinematic style. Both Melancholia (2011) and Antichrist (2009) begin with operatic sequences in extreme slow motion, emphasizing the exquisite, agonizing beauty of stasis; both are almost entirely dominated by one enveloping emotional/philosophical idea, and both are arguably arranged around one master image that consumes everything in their path. (If lack of motility is the dominant trait of clinical depression, one could do worse in crystallizing it as a visual idea than Melancholia’s massive orb, the final triumph of pure geometry set to consume all light and form.) The same cannot be said of Nymphomaniac, which is seismographic in nature, following the tremulous subjective movements of Joe’s story—which, though it contains multitudes, is also the emanation of an individual psyche that is never less than recognizable.

If the structure of Nymphomaniac prohibits it from being a masterpiece like Dogville (2003), or even an all-consuming train wreck like Antichrist, part of why it’s generally so successful is because it functions a bit like a notepad, moving through different styles and tones without ever lapsing into stuntsmanship.  This is a promiscuous film, one that intends to strip that descriptor of any pejorative scent. Like Joe, Nymphomaniac is exploratory and remains radically open, while retaining a core existential self. It can attach its diegesis to a character who may well weave in and out of objective truth; it may tip its hand into reflexivity, only to pull back and attempt to compel belief, both on the level of story and that of formal organization.

On the latter point, there is at times an unusually direct debt to Godard in evidence, particularly in unexpected moments of sexual vulgarity that suggests that von Trier may have been paying attention to latter-day queer Godardians such as Gregg Araki and Xavier Dolan; how else to explain Joe’s clinical description of Jerôme’s two-hole deflowering (three thrusts in the pussy, followed by five in the asshole) being visually emphasized onscreen with a giant “3 + 5”? (Seligman replies in astonishment, “Those are Fibonacci numbers!”) In other, more lighthearted moments, von Trier knocks our blocks off with the sort of on-the-nose music cues we’d expect from Michael Bay or Darren Aronofsky: young Joe (Stacy Martin) and her teen friend P (Mia Goth) trolling for sex on a train to the tune of “Born to Be Wild,” or Joe firebombing an ex’s car while Lars blasts “Burning Down the House.” The utter shock of this hackery (combined with instant rewinds or shock cuts, showing us that Lars is in on the joke) typically sets us up for a return to the austerity of Seligman’s parsonish abode, or a move toward one of Nymphomaniac’s more explicit moments: e.g., Joe giving a blowjob to a businessman, or getting ready to give herself to the sadist K (Jamie Bell).

Probably the most consistently harrowing moments in the film entail young Joe’s on-again/off-again relationship with Jerôme, which eventually results in a son. These domestic scenes are shot in a handheld kitchen-sink realist style, rather washed out but completely suited to the drab middle-class life on display (tacky furniture, beige walls). It’s a conscious throwback to the Dogme style: Dancer in the Dark (2000) without the musical fantasy, Breaking the Waves (1996) with no painterly rapture. More than anything, Joe’s “straight” life resembles The Idiots (1998), and when she finally flees, she experiences a somewhat similar misunderstanding as Bodil Jorgensen’s Karen in the earlier film, mistaking a rule-bound game for a brand new life. At one particularly tense moment during the K vs. Jerôme segment (Chapter 6: The Eastern and the Western Church (The Silent Duck)), von Trier even seems to be on the verge of borrowing a major plot point directly from Antichrist. In the event, he refrains, but this still speaks to his general willingness to treat Nymphomaniac as a broad formal field through which any number of distinct ideas can find space to jostle and insinuate themselves.

Granted, von Trier does give us a visual baseline in the framing device of Seligman’s spartan home, with Joe in bed. This intellectual’s hovel, with its harsh but spare light and isolated religious icons engulfed by a wide sea of surrounding plaster wall, seems to function within our image vocabulary as a sign of the Scandinavian cinema (especially Dreyer, Bergman, and Stiller). Seligman’s tendency to colonize Joe’s story by mobilizing the Western tradition like a phalanx (psychoanalysis, music theory, science, mathematics, theology) eventually becomes something of a joke (Joe: “I think that was your weakest digression so far”). But when we learn that Seligman is a virgin, von Trier is pulling us back into a zone of uncertainty, one that is not explicitly discussed within the film but that can only fall on his shoulders and that we must judge. Is he really doing the virgin/whore thing? The mind/body split? Has Seligman been set up as a kind of middle-class Immanuel Kant, the celibate humanist who stumbled upon a bloodied harlot while taking his daily constitutional?

To an extent, yes, but as we know, it’s never quite that simple with Lars. On the one hand, just as Nymphomaniac provides Joe as the film’s internal storyteller, a driving force who may be giving us the tale we need rather than “the truth,” Seligman is von Trier’s internal audience: not only is he listening to Joe’s story (indeed, he is the reason for its telling), he is a version of an ideal viewer. Nymphomaniac can send his mind off on many interpretive journeys, connecting young Joe’s luring of sex partners to fly fishing, or thinking about her dream in art-historical terms based in Erwin Panofsky’s iconological method. Seligman is a Barthesian: he takes as much pleasure in the text as Joe ever took from the flesh. On the other hand, we know that the white male liberal is a dangerous creature in Von Trier’s universe, partly because he thinks he “understands.” Like Paul Bettany’s Tom Edison in Dogville or Willem Dafoe’s “He” in Antichrist, Seligman is a bit too smug, never willing to simply listen and learn. Joe’s knowledge, as lived through her (female) body, remains something Seligman thinks he needs to interpret and explain for her. That said, he’s not all bad—at least until the film’s final moments, when Von Trier seems to cast a final and definitive vote on Joe’s behalf: that there is not, nor ever will be, a safe harbour from the patriarchy.

Nymphomaniac not only represents a new direction for Lars, but a new level of directness. It’s not just those music cues, or the fact that his beloved male/female dichotomies are so blatantly problematized here, presented as the clumsy thinking that they’ve always been, or that the script contains a number of unusually blunt statements which, while not immediately attributable to Lars himself, seem a bit too forthright to ignore (Seligman describes his family as being long-time Jewish anti-Zionists, “which is not the same as being anti-Semitic, as certain political powers try to convince us”). It’s that despite the sexual explicitness (which is the least interesting thing about Nymphomaniac) or the blend of light comedy with violence and abuse, von Trier has taken a break from his puckish provocateur persona to make a film that wants very much to let you know where its maker stands on things.

It’s a fool’s game to read artworks as expressions of their makers’ autobiography, but with a self-professed neurotic like Von Trier it is difficult to resist the temptation, particularly as even his most seemingly disingenuous manoeuvres are undertaken with complete investment. While he has frequently discussed the personal underpinnings of his films—he has spoken of his own struggles with depression as a formative influence on Antichrist and Melancholia, and has responded to those who criticize his films’ depictions of women as victims by saying that he identifies with these female characters—the constant throughout Von Trier’s career thus far has been his unwillingness to stake out a clear-cut position outside of his films’ moral universe. By offering no safe, liberal perspective from which to watch (and judge) sexism, racism, and xenophobia, Von Trier’s films were always self-indicting, and to some they were examples of the social ills they purported to indict. This willingness to risk looking like a crypto-racist, for example, was the price Von Trier felt was necessary to make a deeply flawed but compelling film like Manderlay (2005), in order to pose questions about race that could not be asked within the bounds of good taste.

By contrast, Nymphomaniac is a film that finds Von Trier working overtime to be understood, to clarify his messages and where possible to distinguish himself from the aggressive men who fill Joe’s life, especially Jerôme and K. Where his earlier films were dominated by crises of helplessness and the micro-negotiations possible within oppressive systems, Nymphomaniac is fundamentally about coming to terms with choice, overcoming shame and fully assuming one’s imperfect selfhood. Even when Seligman (Lars’ arguable stand-in) becomes a threat, it is depicted as a calculated move towards masculine vileness, a rhetorical gesture written in rape. Von Trier seems to be working to avoid looking like a creep, which is not something he’s ever felt the need to do before. Could this be a result of the shellacking he received at Cannes, when he jokingly called himself a Nazi and was declared “persona non grata” by the festival that helped put him on the map? In a way, the provocation was simply a sloppy, off-the-cuff version of the self-indicting, everybody’s-guilty Nietzschean maneuvering that has been Lars’ stock in trade. But maybe it’s hard to be the devil all the time, especially if you actually have things you want to say to the world. So in certain respects, Nymphomaniac is Von Trier’s most timid film in years. But paradoxically, it’s also his most unguarded, the most palpably human. Sicinski Michael