Think of a kiss, maybe the first kiss you ever had, or the first kiss with your loved one: what was the most thrilling thing about it? The excitement doesn’t lie in the sloppy locking of lips or tongues, but in the anticipation, the closeness and the connection between the two parties. Viewed at its most mechanical, there’s nothing exciting at all about a first kiss.
The same can be true of sex, which has become tangled up with so many complex emotions, excitement not always being one of them. Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” created fanfare as a scandalous sex drama because von Trier has become equal parts auteur and “persona non grata”, but his two-part opus does the job of removing the romanticism from sex. In the most explicit ways and on the grandest scale possible, it uses sex only as a lens through which to understand broader ideas about the world, spirituality and humanity.
Volume 1 examines the mechanics of sex while contrasting it with the philosophy and beauty of the more mundane things in the world. Volume 2 dares us to change our lens yet again, equating the main character’s sexual escapades to the Stations of the Cross and making sex truly about a woman searching for fulfillment. The collective whole is provocative, perverse, bizarrely funny and highly explicit, and what’s so surprising and disappointing is how thoughtful and fresh Vol. 1 feels while Vol. 2 could not be more depressing, repulsive and torturous.
“Nymphomaniac” opens in a bleak alleyway. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is passed out and beaten badly and remains there until Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her and brings her to his apartment so she can rest. In explaining her story of how she got there, she begins at her childhood and suspects what led her to this point is that she may be an evil human being.
“I’ve always demanded more from the sunset,” Joe says, explaining how the traditional sensations and feelings that provide most of us with warmth left her desiring more. She and Seligman talk about the world and nature in cynical, clinical terms, but their intelligence and provocative ideas are nonetheless an intriguing lens through which to reimagine what we know.
In removing the romanticism from the sunset or the calming joys of fly-fishing, it allows von Trier to talk about sex. Everything about sex as it is seen here is just an analogy. When Joe is a teenager (Stacy Martin), she and a friend put on their “Fuck Me Now” outfits and make a game out of seducing enough men on a train. The sex is bad and ugly from the way it’s staged, but von Trier finds the elegance to the art of the catch. If you were wondering, that’s ultimately where fly-fishing comes in.
Upon losing her virginity to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), von Trier painfully counts his thrusts: “3 + 5”, he splays over their “love-making”. It’s chilling, cold and plainly mathematical. But von Trier shows us the mechanics in sex and removes all that makes it beautiful or even erotic. There’s more: Joe mentions that if you collected all the foreskin in the world it would reach to Mars and back again. A young Joe joins a cult of sex in which honest and romantic pillow talk is repeated over and over again to different male partners. Her sexual encounters are dangerously determined by chance. And masturbation is discussed so casually it turns sex and love into a social construct.
Von Trier finds more eroticism in three ropes dangling from a gym ceiling, in the precise nature of music or in discussing Edgar Allen Poe. And in a weird way, he makes us respect Joe rather than vilify her perversion. “For every 100 crimes committed in the name of love, only one is committed in the name of sex,” she says.
“Nymphomaniac” is not Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” It’s more psychological than primal, and yet it finds moments of truly intense drama, both in the medical suffering of Joe’s father (Christian Slater) or in the distraught, destroyed life of Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), whose husband left her and three young boys because he loved Joe, a love that certainly wasn’t returned.
Vol. 1 is the work of an auteur at the top of his game, making us feel so deeply for something so clinical and even perverse. And it’s such a shame to see how he toys with us in Vol. 2.
The second film opens with Seligman wondering aloud if Joe is making fun of him. She flashes back again to her first sexual experience, in which while resting in a field she glimpses a vision of Goddesses of Sex levitating her and providing her first orgasm. It’s a strange spiritual diversion that’s all too literal and smacks of von Trier laughing in his audience’s face.
It’s perhaps made all the more cold when Seligman makes another joke at both sex and religion’s expense: “You won’t find me on my knees in regard to either.”
What’s left is a near torturous experience of a woman looking for meaning in a world where romance and faith can provide none. At the end of Vol. 1, Joe begins an intense love affair with Jerome, and by the second film they’ve grown into middle age and had a child. But with Joe’s inability to continue to feel anything from just one partner, Jerome allows her to seek out even more daring sexual encounters.
Vol. 2 makes us endure a strange three-way between Africans who can’t speak English, a support group of sex addicts Joe shuns and a man who delivers bondage punishment through strict rules and vicious results. It’s hard to know which is more repulsive to watch, the abuse itself or Joe leaving her child on Christmas Day so she can get pummeled. Even for a von Trier film, the poor treatment of women seen here goes awfully far.
Before long the film veers into completely absurd plot territory, and it’s all the worse knowing that its von Trier’s elaborate construct for a cheap metaphor. This is an expertly made film, and even when “Nymphomaniac” has gone off the deep end it maintains a captivating style and amusing repartee.
One of the finer standouts is actually Shia LaBeouf, who demands to be taken seriously in a role arguably above his age, and one that’s unlike any he’s tackled in his career. “Nymphomaniac” reportedly featured real sex by the actors and digital replacements of lower halves to those of porn stars, but whatever tricks are at play, if any, these are brave performances that demand the world of these actors. It’s a shame their presentation and effort is treated so brutally.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1: 4 stars
Nymphomaniac Vol. 2: 1.5 stars