David Prendeville takes a walk on the Lars side and considers where Nymphomaniac fits into the often perplexing, strikingly impressive oeuvre of one of modern cinemas leading auteurs.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Nymphomaniac Vols. 1 and 2.
February saw the return of the recently dubbed ‘persona non grata’ of art-house cinema – Lars von Trier – a filmmaker who continues to polarise and perplex audiences. Now the dust has settled, following the much-hyped release of Nymphomaniac, it is the perfect time to consider where it fits in to the often perplexing, strikingly impressive oeuvre of one of modern cinemas leading auteurs. The question of whether we are supposed to take von Trier’s work at face-value or see them as empty provocations on the audience is a rather futile one. His work, since Breaking the Waves, has had elements of both. There is no doubt that von Trier thrives in his role as provocateur and relishes the scandalous elements in films such as the aforementioned Breaking the Waves, as well as The Idiots, Antichrist and now Nymphomaniac. However, that is not to say this renders his work as merely controversy-baiting as some would have it. There is an undoubted power and humanity to his work, amidst the deep cynicism of human nature that runs throughout his films.
The Idiots, which was actually banned in Ireland back in 1998, remains von Trier’s masterwork and the film that perfectly meshes his uncompromising cynicism, his political incorrectness and his ultimate humanity. The final scenes in which Karen returns to her family to ‘spass’ are some of the most harrowing, heart-breaking moments in cinema. It’s a measure of von Trier’s talent that the film can work as a post-modern commentary on performance, a social satire and also as a deeply humane, emotional work. This was of course von Trier’s Dogme film, following on from Thomas Vinterberg’s comparatively bland Festen. Attempting to return to a pureness of cinema, free of the fakery and manipulation of the modern era, von Trier utilised heavy use of Dreyer-esque close-ups in his bid to create a radical modern cinema.
Perhaps this emphasis on the close-up also accounts for the hardcore images that caused so much fuss at the time. Since then von Trier has utilised pornographic imagery once again in Antichrist and more frequently in Nymphomaniac. It is now unquestionably a part of the von Trier aesthetic. But it is surely not even necessary to point out that von Trier’s engagement with hardcore imagery could not be further away from porn. While there is undoubtedly an element of provocation at the heart of von Trier’s decision to show explicit sex in these films – just as there is in the work of Gaspar Noe and Catherine Breillat – it is not empty provocation. Rather it is in keeping with the uncompromising nature of von Trier’s oeuvre. He is a filmmaker who has no bones about showing the ugly sides of humanity and of shattering the illusions prevalent in society. When showing sex in these films, von Trier is attempting to de-eroticise it and show it in a clinical fashion so as to debunk society’s paradoxical obsession with, and fear of, sex. Sex is everywhere in the media, yet to show it explicitly amounts to some sort of scandal. Perhaps the infamous poster-campaign for Nymphomaniac – featuring the film’s stars with supposed orgasm faces – is the ultimate joke on how sex sells. Von Trier replaces suggestiveness and innuendos with explicitness, which is surely a far healthier, or at the very least, honest way of dealing with the subject matter of sex.
This is not to say that von Trier cannot exhibit restraint. The brilliant Melancholia is tasteful and beautiful in its examination of depression. It’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker who could make such a bleak yet oddly uplifting piece of work. As opposed to the idea of him lacking restraint, von Trier is in fact obsessed with discipline. The Dogme manifesto was the first example of this. By giving himself rules to follow von Trier allows the true essence of the work to emerge. A similar fascination with discipline can be seen in his decision to utilise only a bare soundstage in his filming of Dogville.
Nymphomaniac is perhaps the first film of his that is completely unrestrained and lacking in discipline. The film, which follows a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac as she recounts her sexual escapades to Seligman, a lonely intellectual, after he found her beaten in an alleyway, acts almost as a conversation piece between two sides of von Trier. Seligman represents the highbrow side of von Trier and his work, while Joe represents the cynical, outspoken von Trier. Joe is an outsider from society just as von Trier is, to a certain extent only, an outsider in the film world – mainly down to his infamous ejection from Cannes in 2011. The film is all about the tension between these two disparate elements. When Joe tells Seligman of a sexual encounter, he relates it to such things as religion, art, history, psychoanalysis or fly-fishing.
While it’s undoubtedly interesting to see a filmmaker supposedly laying himself bare as he seems do to with this picture, Nymphomaniac ultimately adds up to the least fulfilling von Trier film since his early work, such as The Element of Crime or Europa. While those films were beautiful to look at and indeed have plenty to recommend them, they lack the bite, the interest in humans prevalent in his best work. They are cold, post-modern works. While Nymphomaniac is not as sterile as those films, it is achingly and at times irritatingly post-modern in a way that his other films have not been. While von Trier has always tried to alienate his audience to a certain extent, Nymphomaniac is the first of his to feel somewhat hollow in a long, long time. The commentary by Seligman on Joe’s adventures are (perhaps deliberately) painfully obvious. The film has some interesting ideas. The collision of the two sides of von Trier has some interesting results – the juxtaposition of classical music with Rammstein, the three way split-screen filled with sexual imagery played to Bach. However, the dialogue between Joe and Seligman often leave little room for interpretation as they spell out exactly the ideas behind Joe’s episodes. This, however, is likely to be deliberate on von Trier’s part. It seems as though this is a film that is more concerned with language and storytelling than it is with Joe’s story.
There has to this point been little talk of just how alienating a picture Nymphomaniac is. While the film consistently engages with the kinks of storytelling from the get-go, the strangeness of the project becomes more apparent halfway through Volume Two when Stacy Martin is replaced by Charlotte Gainsbourg in the episodes of Joe’s story. The idea of changing actors as a character gets older is not an unusual idea. Viewers will also have known this is going to happen given the fact that it is Gainsbourg who is relating the story to Seligman. While Martin and Gainsbourg don’t look especially alike, beyond their dark hair and similar stature, this alone is not particularly alienating. Rather the viewer accepts the cast change as a necessary compromise in realism in the striving for another form of realism – the realistic ageing of a character. However, it is from this point that von Trier’s game with realism becomes all the more apparent. Instead of attempting a seamlessness in the switching of the actors playing characters, von Trier seems to heighten the very unrealistic nature of this, and attempts to draw attention to the fact that the characters we have seen throughout the film are now suddenly very different as a result of the change in actor. After Gainsbourg replaces Martin, instead of Shia Labeouf’s Jerome getting a similar change of actor in the name of continuity, he stays the same. There is something infinitely strange about seeing Gainsbourg, an older version of Joe, having a crisis talk with LaBeouf – a still young Jerome. Were this the extent of the casting games then one could write it down as an oversight on von Trier’s part. One might assume that von Trier brought in an older actress for Joe so as to highlight her weariness and physical affects nymphomania has had on this woman. But when Jerome reappears later on in the film – lo and behold – a new actor, Michael Pas, is now playing him.
Joe’s story culminates in a nightmarish scene in an alleyway in which Jerome and P (more on her later) beat Joe brutally. Jerome is not now just being played by a different actor he seems to be a different person. The Jerome we saw earlier in the film did not seem as if he could ever possibly do something as grotesque as literally battering Joe in the alleyway. The viewer, as well as coming to terms with a major shift in a character’s behaviour, are further confused and alienated by the sight of an entirely different man acting as Jerome. This, coupled with the highly artificial set, which resembles something one might encounter in a Fassbinder melodrama, albeit less colourful, renders this scene as truly nightmarish and unsettling. The only thing that links this Jerome to the Jerome seen earlier on in the film is Joe’s perspective and the superimposition of the Fibonacci numbers that similarly appeared across the screen when Jerome took Joe’s virginity early on in the film.
While this in itself is deeply alienating, the fact that it is has followed the baffling final chapter in which Joe becomes a debt collector and by some borderline incomprehensible plot convolutions and contrivances ends up finding an understudy for her life of crime in that of a 15-year-old girl with a disfigured ear – P (Mia Goth). Initially Joe goes about watching P play basketball games. Before long she has moved in with her. While to begin with they seem to have a mother-daughter type relationship, soon enough they become lovers. One day going about her debt collecting business, sure enough, Joe finds that she must get a collection off of none other than Jerome. Unable to handle this, she gets P to do it for her, which results in P and Jerome starting a sexual relationship and ultimately beating Joe half to death in that alleyway.
Before relating this final chapter, Joe struggles to find an object in Seligman’s room from which to title the story. Whereas before she used a hook, a Rublev icon and other things, she now cannot see anything from which to start her tale. Seligman relates this problem to the way he looks at texts and says sometimes you need to look at things in a new way so that you see them in a fresh light. This allows Joe to see a tea stain as that of a gun and so begins the story. However, this exchange and particularly Seligman’s remarks on text, strikes me as being significant because it is after this point that the film completely dispenses with any notion of a reality and seems to defamiliarise, even, the universe the film has existed in up until this point. It is also the first point in the film in which Joe turns the tables on her male counterpoints, to an extent, using K’s sadomasochistic techniques used on her, to good effect in her debt collecting business. It is also the first time in which Joe has any sexual relations with another female. In a sense this chapter becomes almost like a male fantasy in which we have an authoritarian female character who dishes out punishment to men and has sex with other women. Whereas the other chapters focused on Joe and the psychology of her sex addiction, this chapter abandons that and Joe, a layered and powerful female character up until this point, becomes almost like a caricature of her former self.
Once again what von Trier is attempting to achieve with this I am not entirely sure. Perhaps von Trier’s description of the film as a ‘porno’ should not be taken completely in jest. Perhaps the whole film is in fact a von Trier porno in the same way Dancer in the Dark is a von Trier musical and Antichrist is a von Trier horror? Or perhaps von Trier’s description of the film as a porno relates to the fact that the film is the most indulgent von Trier has probably ever made. It often plays like a greatest hits compilation of von Trier’s oeuvre with constant references to his other work found in the various chapters. In the first chapter we have the train setting – a reference to Europa, as well as the fact that Joe’s clothing, or as she describes it, her ‘fuck me now clothes’, mirrors the clothes worn by Bess (Emily Watson) in Breaking the Waves. The second chapter, in which Joe and B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) form their own subversive sex group is, surely, a reference to the Dogme manifesto. This is particularly apparent from the fact that B can’t ultimately adhere to their anti-love manifesto, in the same way that none of the Dogme filmmakers completely maintained the rules of their post-modern creed.
Antichrist is explicitly referenced in a scene in which Joe’s toddler child climbs out the window of her apartment and also when Joe, as a child, lies down on grass before having a spontaneous orgasm. These are not just visual references, as von Trier, as if we didn’t get it already, uses the same music he used in Antichrist, for both these scenes. The references to Judaism, political correctness and the queasy sequence in which race is discussed all point further to the fact that the film is very much about von Trier himself. While it is true that all his films are about himself to a certain extent, perhaps the best way of putting it, is that this is the first that appears to be about Lars von Trier – the public persona and not Lars Trier (he added the von himself) and deeply personal issues, such as the examination of his own depression seen in Antichrist and Melancholia.
Aside from referencing his own work there is also the now mandatory nods to Andrei Tarkovsky scattered throughout Nymphomaniac. Most pertinently there is a chapter called ‘The Mirror’, whose title card resembles exactly the poster for the Tarkovsky masterpiece Mirror (1975). Then, there is also that Rublev painting – a reference, of course, to Tarkovsky’s chronicle of the great icon painter. The credits of the film also pay thanks to Tarkovsky, as did the credits in Melancholia. Antichrist went a step further and was dedicated to the master filmmaker. While some, at the time, took von Trier’s dedication as something of a joke, there is no doubt that von Trier is sincere in his admiration for Tarkovsky. The beautiful slow-motion visuals of Antichrist and Melancholia, as well, as the mixing of black and white and colour in the former, are clear indications of the inspiration von Trier has taken from the Russian.
It would be interesting to know quite what Tarkovsky would have made of von Trier’s films. Von Trier showed his first film, The Element of Crime, to his idol, only for Tarkovsky to label it as ‘garbage’. There is no doubt though that von Trier has, for want of a better word, matured since then in the sense that his films from Breaking the Waves onwards have become far more humane than his cold early works and von Trier, despite dividing critics, appears to be much more universally admired by other filmmakers. One of von Trier’s other heroes, Ingmar Bergman, once said, that von Trier himself didn’t even realise how much of a genius he was. Other top filmmakers, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Nicolas Roeg, have also spoken of admiration for his work. The brilliant, iconic French actress Catherine Deneuve even went as far as writing von Trier a letter saying she would do any part in any film he made. The end result being her supporting role in Dancer in the Dark. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the fact that von Trier is a filmmaker who is obsessed with form and is genuinely experimental both in his form, and as result with his actors. His taste for experimentation can probably be best exemplified by his underrated 2006 comedy, The Boss of it All, in which von Trier utilised Automavision, a technique in which the camera angles and movements are selected by computer.
Ultimately, even von Trier’s harshest critics must concede he is one of the most individual and interesting filmmakers working today. This writer, as a fan of his, is still uncertain as to his feelings on Nymphomaniac. It certainly struck me as being less heartfelt than his other work, this confirmed by the coda at the end in which Seligman gets shot as a result of attempting to rape Joe, which seemed like a childish, silly end to the film. However, in another sense, perhaps this was the only way the film could have ended. It is the ultimate summation of the ridiculous and the sublime at the heart of the film. While the tone is more flippant than in his best work and the film lacks the punch to the gut one now expects of von Trier, it still has moments that stick, such as that nightmarish alley sequence, or when Joe discovers the tree that supposedly represents her soul or even the provocative paedophile sequence.
If von Trier’s aim is, as many claim, to confound both his critics and his fans, I’m sure he would take plenty of pride in, at least, confusing one of his fans. You just don’t know what this filmmaker might throw up next. That’s what makes him so exciting and what confirms his status as a genuine filmmaking maverick.