Sex on the silver screen: Challenging concepts and unsettling eroticism in ‘Nymphomaniac’

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 12:17pm

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I feel I’ve waded into darker and more psychosexually challenging territory with “Nymphomaniac.” Directed by Lars von Trier (“The House That Jack Built”), the film is split into two volumes chronicling Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Antichrist,” with her younger self played by Stacy Martin, “Redoubtable”) past sexual explorations and encounters, as told to the man who found her beaten in an alleyway.

Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) invites Joe into his home to rest and recover after finding her bloodied and unconscious near his apartment building. Joe is a self-declared sex addict — a nymphomaniac. Throughout the whole film, Joe shares the first half of her story with Seligman, broken into chapters according to major events in her sexual development. The first volume culminates with the death of her father and an emphatic coital declaration to her then-boyfriend Jerôme (Shia LaBoeuf, “Transformers”) that she “can’t feel anything.”

I’m hesitant to open Pandora’s box here. Joe presents herself to Seligman as a sinner, and her story is meant to convince him of this. By the end of part one, however, Seligman remains certain that Joe has committed no wrong. This question of sinful sex, particularly through a voracious sexual appetite, hangs over the film. Over decades of cinema, we’ve seen women’s sexuality portrayed in many different negative lights; I addressed this motif in a piece on “40 Year Old Virgin.” Unlike “40 Year Old,” “Nymphomaniac,” only the woman in question, Joe, sees herself as sinful.

Joe has slept with dozens of men, and we are led to believe she has little to no emotional connection with all but one (Jerôme). She will often sleep with up to 10 men each day, sex consuming her life. This consumption plays a key role in the film’s capacity to enrapture. As seen with Gaspar Noe’s (“Into the Void”) “Love,” erotic films and those incorporating non-simulated sex can be arousing for the audience. This arousal is a tool for the director, though it is predicated upon a psychological investment made by the viewer. An erotic film can, as a work of art, touch the viewer in unseen ways. This bluntly sensual destruction of the fourth wall allows a more personal connection to the film and its characters. Unlike in “Call Me by Your Name,” the viewer need not relate to eroticism through symbols. The sexual experience is available to all invested parties.

The challenging aspect, and the element which entangles the viewer in the question of sinful sexuality, is the involuntary nature of arousal. As Joe herself faces arousal in uncomfortable situations, the viewer may be drawn in as well. Standing over her father’s corpse, Joe “lubricates.” A long black and white shot follows, a drop of fluid gliding down the inside of her right leg. While focused on female sexuality, I find the film places an uncomfortable yet deserved spotlight on predatory male sexuality and the animalistic drive to mate as a form of sociosexual conquest. The men in “Nymphomaniac” are often unnamed, portrayed only as tools for Joe to achieve pleasure.

However, two men resist this mold, most notably Joe’s father. Joe has great respect and adoration for her father. Joe inherits his love of nature, which opens the door for metaphor and symbolism. This deep and personal connection with nature represents an intuitive relationship with the body; forest greenery mirrors the lush intricacies of feminine sexuality in contrast with the brutish and masculine. Seligman’s comparison of Joe’s sex games with her friend B to fly fishing is an excellent example; von Trier reduces sex to a natural process in a dual effort to dehumanize sex and make sexuality relatable. The director desires of the viewer an open mind: by suggesting the complexities of sex and sex addiction, he seeks willful submission to arousal and more critically, pain.

Towards the end of the film, we see sex take a narcotic role. During and following the death of her father, Joe finds men in the underbelly of the hospital, having sex on vacant gurneys. Overcome by the pain of watching her father slip into delirium, Joe attempts to digest these feelings through intercourse, and it is in this instance that we see her wail for the first time. This snapshot suggests sex may have become a tool not only to maximize pleasure, but to specifically minimize pain. In fact, the cliff-hanger “I can’t feel anything” only suggests an elaboration on this classical hedonism in the second film.

***

By the end of Volume 2, I wished I stopped at Volume 1. Von Trier reveals himself to be a storyteller of the utmost cynicism. In fact, I resent the half-assed feminism of the film’s final moments. From the beginning, Seligman is presented as an impartial judge of Joe’s character. He maintains her innocence, despite her own insistence of a sinful life. Seligman’s repeated literary and biblical references, which correspond to Joe’s own story, are initially a mechanism for him, a virgin, to relate to Joe’s sexuality. His symbolic role is suggested by his wisdom and by his monastic bedroom.

I recognize the great critical liberty I take in this assignation, but I believe Seligman is a representation of Saint Peter, his cloistral cell is heaven’s anteroom. His assessment of Joe will determine her fate, pure or impure, heaven or hell. Von Trier seems to fetishize the cyclical, and this metaphorical judgement day is the most Nietzschean cycle of all. Nietzsche theorized eternal recurrence (or return), the burdensome concept that every life is destined to repeat ad infinitum. Nietzsche’s solution was amor fati, the love of fate, a willful acceptance of destiny and eager submission to eternal return. Without spoiling the film’s ending, this purgatorial idea of destined rebirth is evident. The intersection of sex and sin plays an important role in this eschatological scenario, which Von Trier explores, both philosophically and theologically.

In short, the film is conceptually brilliant, despite its pathology. The feminist suggestion — that, had Joe been a man, her life would’ve been acceptable and ordinary — falls short of the conceptual bar von Trier sets himself. This reliance on gender binaries negates the experience of sexuality as individual and personal. Men too, can be sex addicts. Other themes, namely isolation and obsession, grow to appear ornamental when the film is viewed as a whole.

Joe’s father relates trees to the human soul when Joe is perhaps 12 years old. This concept is introduced in part one, and elaborated upon in part two. Joe shares with the viewer, through a conversation with her ward, protégé and plaything P (Mia Goth, “A Cure for Wellness”), that she has yet to find her soul tree. Of course, Chekov has two guns in this film.

Joe’s soul tree is ultimately discovered, alone atop a mountain, yearning. A beautiful and accessible (perhaps too accessible) yet visual metaphor, the image of Joe beside her soul tree conjures a picture of Moses beside the burning bush. Volume 2 is clearly plagued by unbelievably coincidental cyclical cynicism — Jerôme’s role in the film’s faux detournement for example — and this detracts from the intellectual concepts at play. The Moses imagery, for example, had the potential to be deeply cerebral were it not cheapened by the theme of isolation. I appreciated the film’s theological motifs: The incorporation of iconography and worship as a counterpart to or component of lust, as well as the (interpreted) purgatorial setting, allow for thoughtful analysis of human nature. Lust and faith make a fascinating pair, and further probe the relationship of sex and sin.

The Freudian thread woven throughout the two volumes and Nietzschean conundrum at the film’s conclusion ask good philosophical questions about sexuality and addiction. One must make one’s own determination of Joe’s fate. I see eternal return as most likely, though I’d entertain a case made for hell. “Nymphomaniac” is a deeply challenging film. Lars von Trier is an artist and a philosopher; I resist the urge to comment on his psyche. The end of Volume 1, Joe’s declaration of numbness, is a premonitory exclamation, a warning for the viewer. I confess I too felt nothing as the credits rolled. Von Trier destabilizes the foundations of sexuality in an unsettling way. “Nymphomaniac” reduces human worth and morality to lust and its fulfillment, for better or for worse.