Home Arts Much ado about sex and von Trier

Much ado about sex and von Trier

by Elijah Bukreev March 18, 2014
Much ado about sex and von Trier

The much-anticipated Nymph()maniac is the explicit story of a sex-addict

The least you could say about Nymph()maniac is that it isn’t boring. It is also extremely hard to watch, but then, it’s made by Lars von Trier, which should tell you something about its nature. Political correctness is a foreign notion to the provocateur extraordinaire, who has been described by at least one of his actors as a “dangerous” man.

Comprising two volumes, Nymph()maniac stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia Labeouf, and Uma Thurman. Photo by Christian Geisnaes/Zentropa

Von Trier is one with a twisted sense of humour, although you can never be sure if he’s joking. Three years ago, during an interview for his previous film, Melancholia, he pointed at his two stars and declared: “My next film is a porn film with those two.” They laughed. The interviewer laughed. The audiences laughed. And then, von Trier went ahead and made the film.

Nymph()maniac, the conclusive title in the Danish director’s Depression Trilogy, has been divided into two volumes, each two hours long. The story itself is fragmented into eight chapters, one of them made in black-and-white. Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays the main character, has starred in a total of four von Trier films, from which one might conclude that she enjoys physical and emotional distress.

That makes her a suitable choice for the role of Joe, a hopeless sex-addict who, at the beginning of Volume One, is found unconscious in a deserted alleyway by a caring middle-aged man out on an evening walk. He brings her back to consciousness and takes her home with him. He is appalled that a woman would get treated the way she did — she seems to have been severely beaten up, her face all bloodied and bruise-laden.

Joe thinks otherwise. She believes the beating was well-deserved; “I’m a bad human being,” is one of the first things she says. Her benefactor begs for an explanation, and that’s how the story gets started. The two films give an account of Joe’s life and addiction, told in her own words.

Some of it you’d wish wasn’t told in her own words. Joe speaks her mind with a disarming openness, casually making use of questionable language. Her host introduces himself as Seligman (“What a fucking ridiculous name”). He listens with interest as she rambles about her “cold bitch” of a mother, her polymorphous perversity (“I discovered my cunt at two years old”), her early experiences with sex (she loses her virginity at age 15), and later ones, all which grow increasingly harrowing. The timeline takes us back and forth between past and present, as causes and consequences are exposed.

The story takes place in an unnamed European city which is, judging by some accents, likely to be situated in the UK. The reason why it’s hard to tell is because very little context is given — we barely ever see any exterior shots. Most of the first film takes place behind closed doors, in bedrooms especially. The main action consists in the conversation between Joe and Seligman (played by Stellan Skarsgård), which shapes the structure of the films and takes place over the course of a whole night. Imagine 1001 Nights as a bleak sexual fantasy and you might get an idea of what to expect.

Skarsgård and Gainsbourg have an interesting chemistry together. Their characters are polar opposites: she is a nymphomaniac, he is by his own admission an asexual virgin. She tells a story, he comments on it using his vast cultural knowledge, which covers all topics except sex. He brings interesting and often amusing insights to the table, finding analogies between Joe’s story and music, literature, even fishing.

However, the conversation often tends to get overly rhetorical. You lose the sense that these are two living people: they become more like one-dimensional mouthpieces for the ideas von Trier wants to communicate. Some of these have no place in Nymph()maniac. For instance, Seligman says he is an anti-Zionist (“which is not the same as being anti-Semitic, despite what some people would have you believe.”) for no other reason than that von Trier has taken a vow of silence after famously getting into trouble for claiming he was a Nazi, and is now expressing himself through his characters.

Another way the movie falters is by its casting. Having different actors play the same characters is a hard trick to pull off. In Volume One, the younger Joe and her first lover Jerome are played by Stacy Martin and Shia Labeouf (in a very unexpected role). In Volume Two, they are played by Gainsbourg and Michael Pas. When the switch happens, you’re immediately pulled out of the story, and keep wondering whether you’re really watching the same characters, especially given that some of their behaviour also goes through a change.

Nymph()maniac is set apart first of all by its content, but also by its style. Von Trier uses shaky-cam, low-key acting and non-simulated sexual intercourse — which comes off as too much of a gimmick — and in Volume One that feels distracting. However, if you watch both volumes in one sitting, you might notice that by the time Volume Two has started, you’ve grown more comfortable with the rules set up by the director in the cinematic world he’s created, and are more able to appreciate the story for what it’s worth. Of the film, Skarsgård has said, “After a while, a penis entering an orifice is as natural as food entering your mouth”, and he’s right.

Volume Two also features much more violence. Be warned, there are scenes of a sadomasochist nature, and they look and feel authentic. One can only hope they’re not. Jamie Bell stars as some kind of a shady pain-therapist. He’s maddeningly calm and methodical in his ‘work’. He knows exactly what he wants, and he gets it without losing his temper. We have preconceived notions of what a sadist must look and behave like, and Bell’s character is none of these things. It is a quietly horrifying performance, light-years away from his breakthrough role as Billy Elliot in 2000.

So are Lars von Trier’s latest two films pornographic? Let’s look at Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term. The definition starts with saying that “movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way” are pornography, which applies to Nymph()maniac. But then, the goal of pornography is “to cause sexual excitement,” which doesn’t apply as much.

The two movies are unthinkably explicit. You could say that the movies contain sex, but it would be more accurate to say that the sex contains the movies. There, you have every variety of it, and this is the censored version. One can only guess what must have been left on the cutting-room floor. Sex is instrumental in telling this story, but is it meant to arouse its audience? The two films are dark, disturbing and fittingly depressing. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting off on them.

Yet Nymph()maniac has its share of pleasures. There are moments of absolute and much needed hilarity, like a scene-stealing performance by Uma Thurman as a heartbroken woman whose husband has mistaken Joe’s sexual lust for love and decided to move in with her. Thurman’s character impulsively decides to take her sons on a visit to their father’s newly adopted habitat and shows them the “whoring bed”.

The editing of both movies is ingenious. There’s a sense of liberation from formulaic narrative structures that makes Nymph()maniac feel like a satanic rendition of a Terrence Malick film. In 2011, Malick and von Trier both had films at the Cannes Film Festival: the former made The Tree of Life, which shows the creation of Earth, and the latter made Melancholia, about its destruction. Both directors make use of religious undertones, classical music, and roaming camera moves. Their styles are not that distant, but their worldviews — irreconcilable. Malick offers hope, von Trier only cynicism. To each his own.

Nymph()maniac opens in theatres nationwide on March 21.

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