Love is just lust with a little jealousy. A statement made by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the central character of Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier’s arthouse porn opus (big enough for two volumes) Nymphomaniac. It’s a bit hollow, but so is the life of Joe, a woman marred by the inability to emotionally connect to men. In the film’s opening scene, set to the thundering sound of Rammstein, a battered Joe is found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) in an alley behind his home, wet, dirty snow falling around them. The tone is set: this is a woman who has hit rock bottom. How did she get there? What happened to her? Seligman invites her in for a cup of tea and an opportunity to tell her story. It’s an immoral tale, Joe warns him, but he insists.
And so she starts. The film jumps to her early youth, to pivotal scenes of a loving father (Christian Slater) she adores and a distant mother (Connie Nielsen) with whom she has a strained relationship. The relationship with the father will return at several points in the story, while the mother stays out of the picture most of the time. We are only halfway in (pun fully intended), but von Trier seems to be positioning the idolization of her father as a driving influence on Joe’s incapability to build an emotional connection to the men in her later life. And there will be a lot of men.
Moving forward about ten years, several chapters follow Joe in her late teens (played by newcomer Stacy Martin), descending into a life of promiscuity. Losing her virginity to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) is a demoralizing experience, yet his coincidental recurrence in Joe’s life (an element of her tale Seligman has his doubts about) as the single man who casts a spell on her shows that for most of the film, she may not be a lost cause for love yet. Only in their last scene, when the relationship with this man (the only one in the film who treats her like dirt, and the only one she can’t really get a grip on) is finally consummated, does she realize that not even he can replace her father. She feels nothing. Just before that, we witnessed her father’s tragic demise, with a caring Joe at his hospital bedside. It’s an emotional highpoint in the film, the only place where Joe lets her emotions run free, and both Martin and Slater act the hell out of these scenes. Away from her father, Joe is calculating, emotionless, only out to satiate her own desire. Sex becomes an escape, a wall to throw up, a release valve for any emotion that affects her. Her disgust for herself and her actions is growing, and the more men she devours, the lonelier she gets. “I am a bad person,” she tells Seligman.
This older man is the more enigmatic character in the film. He is the good samaritan, the man who tries to comfort Joe, continuously downplaying her sins, putting her stories side by side with and comparing them to things like fly fishing, the Fibonacci sequence, the cutting of fingernails, or the gruesome fate of Edgar Allan Poe. Many of his intermissions take on the form of comic relief, as if to let some air out of the sexual pressure cookers that are the chapters in Joe’s story. The good-natured Seligman also appears as someone who has shut off all deeper human connections, even if his reasons are much less clear. Is he an extension of the director, an observer, or just a plot device to keep Joe’s story going? Will the veil be lifted from this mysterious character in the second volume?
Female sexuality is not a subject new to von Trier’s oeuvre, and his last two films exploring this theme (this and 2009’s Antichrist, also with Gainsbourg in the lead) have focused on women who are ashamed of their lust, disgusted by their ‘sins.’ Women pursuing pleasure will only lead to their downfall. Criticasters see a misogynistic streak in von Trier’s character, but if we see Seligman as an extension of von Trier, that view may have to be revised. Seligman is uncritical of Joe’s behaviour, continually explaining her acts as natural or comparable to phenomena found in nature. Von Trier also presents both Joe and Antichrist‘s She as grotesque characters, whose self-hatred is not truly validated in the eyes of the average viewer, unlike those who have sexual morals deeply based in religion. “Don’t beat yourself up so much,” you want to tell these characters, and von Trier is right beside us in this. His only condemnation of his heroines is that they are silly for being ashamed of their lust.
The director’s views on religion have always been very specific, and although there is only a short interchange about it here, it once again shows that Von Trier is not exactly a man of dogma. Joe contends she has been sinful, but Seligman counters this by saying that sin is one of the pillars of religion. If you take away religion, what is left of sin? This suggestion that sexual morality and notions of sin are formed by religious dogma isn’t exactly illuminating, but does underscore the central criticism of the double standard applied by men to women when it comes to sex. Men want a “lady in the living room, but a whore in the bedroom.” The negative connotation of the word ‘whore’ implies that the behaviour itself (women seeking pleasure) is bad, but it is allowed in the privacy of their own home, with their own man. There is a scene in the film where a woman (a superb Uma Thurman) whose husband cheats on her with Joe, confronts him by bringing her children to Joe’s apartment while the husband is there. “Can I show the children the whoring bed?” she asks Joe. Joe is a whore for seeking her own pleasure, never mind the fact that it takes two to tango. By playing this scene as an awkward farce, with Thurman’s character having an incredulous reaction to her philandering husband, the film ridicules this view of female sexuality.
The film is very funny anyway. As already stated, Skarsgård’s interjections are often comical, and von Trier also applies a host of other techniques like animation, split screens, and overlays to comic effect. Even some of the sex scenes are playfully done. When von Trier announced that he would be making a porn film, people thought he was in full provocateur mode as usual. But in reality, the explicitness is rather toned down, in this cut anyway, and most of the sex is imbued with some sort of emotion, whether it be playfulness or sadness. Joe’s emotions are meant to be felt in these scenes, and even the most gratuitous shot, a true porn-like penetration shot of LaBeouf and Martin, is not devoid of meaning. Moments later, Joe declares that she doesn’t feel anything (emotionally), and it is telling that this comes right after the most emotionally devoid and clinical ‘porn’ shot of the film.
The downward spiral will most likely continue in volume two, but will there be redemption for Joe? Does she get to the core of her ‘problem’? And what is Seligman’s role in all of this? Many questions to be answered still, but this first volume ensures that I for one will be coming for the answers.