Danish filmmaker and provocateur Lars von Trier is best known for his frequent flings with controversy. His other works include the crude and often disturbing comedy The Idiots (1998) and the apocalyptic Melancholia (2011). Von Trier’s latest film is a more carnal and explicit affair with the screen. It is his magnum opus; a sprawling tangle of pornographic, paedophilic and racy debacles that situates the audience on the edge of tastelessness and threatens to lose its way against the chaotic uncoiling of events. A study of female pleasure, sexual identity and desire, the fleshy epic offers a satirical, confrontational and critical breakdown of screen taboos in a grand display of eroticism. Occurring across two volumes, the sexcapades of a nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) unravel in a facetious and darkly comic drama that recounts her erotic and often aggressive sexual encounters. In Vol. I von Trier introduces the explicit tale and establishes a seemingly sombre and often fantastical reality. Vol. II capitalises on the woe of his central female character and his commentary on the representation of women reaches its climax in a satisfying, if not grimly ironic, finale.
After finding Joe beaten and bloody in an alleyway, the appearing-to-be educated and older Seligman (Stalin Skarsgård) shelters and comforts her. Joe’s story unfolds through numerous chapters wrapped in metaphor but she remains frazzled and imprisoned in Seligman’s care. The film often digresses at opportune times to illustrate and allegorise Joe’s hardships and pry into von Trier’s oddly eclectic and often peculiar knowledge and interests. Joe’s attempt to have sex with a number of men on-board a train is compared with fly-fishing; Joe, now assuming a gross caricature of women, is the bait flaunting and flailing for attention. Seligman’s similar strangeness, arguably the greatest token of von Trier’s quirkiness, is manifested in the character’s unusual and abstract parallels drawn with Joe’s sexual recounting. He often interjects some conspiratorial quip about Fibonacci numberings or other bizarre mathematical observations relating to Joe’s story.
Von Trier’s work can be as violating as it can be comforting. Nymphomaniac finds pleasure in contrasts and fulfils von Trier’s fetish for sensation. The film operates in a deranged fantasy; there is no indication of spatial or temporal awareness as the sexual odyssey unreels across the untidiness of the eight chapters. Joe’s addiction continues to be wilfully placated by a series of masturbatory experiences, sexual encounters and her affections for Shia LaBeouf’s ill-portrayed Jerôme. Miscast and with a cringing British accent, LaBeouf is the least exotic trinket in von Trier’s mixed bag of ideas.
Contrary to many reports in the mainstream media, Nymphomaniac is pornographically restrained and the anticipated offensive tropes seem tame, especially in consideration of von Trier’s otherwise sexually rich canon; von Trier’s ode to the female orgasm is not so gratuitous and artificial after all. Instead, the hard-core is situated within the wider narrative and characterises Joe’s desires and pleasure. The explicit sex is functional, acting as means of expression for the characters and not another disposable mode of arousal for the viewer. Where von Trier’s film differs from other attempts to sell sex as spectacle in the mainstream is in Nymphomaniac’s unapologetic warts-and-all embrace of even the roughest edges. Nymphomaniac’s wild frenzy of sex scenes captures the diversity of human emotion and experience more effectively than, for example, Ang Lee’s gentle art-house fare Lust, Caution (2007) and more recent French headliner Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), which have few moments of heavy panting and thrusting.
The love/sex conundrum formulates the basis of Joe’s conquests and the absence of love is replaced with the satisfaction of sex. During an addicts meeting, Joe challenges the idea of sex as a tool for validation and instead embraces it as part of her identity. For Joe, sex is cathartic and somewhat mythical. Her orgasms signal an escape from her mundane and insignificant everyday. Von Trier’s vision, however, operates outside the existing fashions of the porno-chic, whereby porn becomes a fashionable and accessible attraction; Joe’s sexual exploits are more personal and emphatic than they are pornographic and excessive. She wrestles with male impotence and feels pain. Far from being an accessory in yet another porno fantasy and often dissatisfied by her several male partners, Joe is critical of the limitations of the porno-chic and its inadequate spectrum of emotion. In comparison with the grunts and groans of conventional hard-core pornography, Gainsbourg’s performance of sex is less mechanical, remarkably brutal, often comical and always dramatic.
Much like Steve McQueen’s tortured and distraught drama Shame (2011), Nymphomaniac is a detailed account of sex addiction that is dedicated to its exploration of sexual identity, only this time female. However, where Shame’s sex addict is mute and numb and offers a representation of addiction beyond rescue, Nymphomaniac thoroughly enjoys its dirtiness and sexual promiscuity. Joe inhabits an inherently phallic world and her character displays traits of virile masculinity. She often struggles to satisfy her addiction, experimenting with an arsenal of shaped tools and techniques. Her positioning as narrator situates her authority in the story, just as she controls her male counterparts. Yet while she constantly progresses, she never evolves. For Joe to experience pleasure, von Trier castrates the male to empower the female. It is not so much a literal castration but a removal of dominance and control. Compositionally, Joe’s performance of pleasure dominates the screen space, almost forgetting the presence of another figure. Her supremacy in the bedroom renders her male companions impotent and her inability to satisfy her addiction becomes the focus; perhaps the orgasm is less the prize than the pleasure/pain at her dissatisfaction.
Lars von Trier’s earlier films hardly compare to the prowess of Nymphomaniac’s grandeur; a cold and often tasteless chuckle is the needed relief from von Trier’s satirical joust at sexual and behavioural taboos. The ambition of such a project encourages, even enables, the spectator to adopt a different take on the perceptions of women through its depiction of Joe’s sexual agency. Whilst not as immediately wicked as the trending collage of “O” face profiles of the cast would suggest, Nymphomaniac is quite the sexual and erotic reawakening for its audience.