Almost three years now, the Danish auteur’s film made quite the stir even before it was released. That’s the funny thing with sex; it initiates a reaction when the word is simply spoken out loud. The film, the third and final installment of Von Trier’s depression trilogy, revolves around Joe, a self-confessed Nymphomaniac who tells her story from age 5 till 50 to the seemingly asexual yet extremely intrigued Seligman.
Opening with a Neue Deutsche Härte track from the German band Rammstein, a track almost as wild as the film itself, that preps the viewers for the rollercoaster of a movie they are about to watch. The film opens with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), knocked unconscious in a dirty empty alley. She is found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who takes her to his home offering help and shelter. Joe then recounts the events of her life that led to her discovery in such a vulnerable state, never failing to emphasize on the fact that she is the cause of her own fall, and that she is – in her own words – an evil person. What then follows is a four-hour long epic; that involves sex, violence, and all the human emotions that go in between.
Despite Von Trier’s well established artistic – and even personal – persona as a provocateur, I believe it is safe to say that none of his previous films has garnered the same amount of controversy as Nymphomaniac did. Beginning with the release of the film’s name, and declaring that it would revolve around “a woman who discovers her eroticism”, the director did get some raised eyebrows, since in a world where almost the entire film industry caters to heterosexual male viewers and their fantasies; it is still problematic to make a film completely about female sexuality. As more material began to be released, the controversy, and even the anticipation, began to grow. And though the film got a number of negative reviews that considered it an exploitation piece, or even a misogynist film, I still believe that Von Trier’s message was unorthodox yet feminist at heart, and here is why:
- Exploring Female Sexuality
It’s not very often that female sexuality is handled so clearly on screen. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mesmerizingly cold performance generates one of the greatest forces controlling this film. Instead of wallowing in guilt and shame about her sexuality, she seems to have accepted herself, and her dangerous appetite. In a society where slut-shaming is a part of everyday media; seeing a character that not only accepts, but even thrives unapologetically in her sex life is always refreshing.
When Steve McQueen released his drama Shame (2011) it also faced controversy, yet it appeared to be based solely on showing a flaccid male penis on screen. Sadly the case with Nymphomaniac is not only the nudity. A major dilemma remains with the film’s unapologetic approach at exploring the wild sexual adventures of its lead female, her wildness that often causes harm to other people is almost celebrated all throughout the film, after all “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” In her pursue of pleasure, Joe ventures into some much tabooed territory, which brings us to the next point.
- Expanding the Limits of Free Speech on Screen
Some of the major controversy formed around the film was caused by the director’s strong, and sometimes even plain bizarre, political views that are spawn all throughout the film’s dialogue. From postulating as to whether using the word “negro” is politically incorrect or simply society’s way of dealing with an unresolvable problem, to exploring some very distorted views regarding the legitimacy of abortions, the man rarely misses a taboo. I have to admit, though I do not agree with most of Von Trier’s views explored in this dialogue, there is something incredibly fascinating about watching a filmmaker being utterly honest in front of his audience. It reestablishes the role of cinema as an expressive art form not limited by societal taboos or governed by partial laws. On the silver screen, nothing is prohibited, and Von Trier knows this better than anyone.
Although the film got some negative remarks regarding these particular segments of the dialogue, claiming them to be “pseudo-intellectual pauses between the porn”, I find these sequences completely unrelated to intellect. It is social commentary in its barest forms, and it raises some much required speculation about the fundamentals of our society.
- Seeing Past the Pornography
How often do you see a porn film where they compare the number of thrusts during sex to Fibonacci’s numbers? The answer, in case you were wondering, is never. Despite Nymphomaniac’s countless sex scenes, it rarely materializes as sexual or even slightly arousing, as it all seems very methodical, and even though the film shows a continuous effort to wander into some extremely explicit sexual territory, it seems to almost constantly return to its original philosophical ground. The main storyline is the relationship that develops between Joe and Seligman, not the promiscuous innumerable relationships that Joe recounts. Eventually, the viewers will find themselves a part of a highly compelling conversation that explores quite the range of topics, from music, to mathematics, to politics, without ever ceasing to impress, and sometimes even shock, its listener.
The fact that Von Trier used body doubles and CGI for filming the hardcore scenes without having the actors carry out any of the acts themselves blurred the line even further for those who considered Nymphomaniac nothing but porn. But then again how often do you see a porn film that in itself mocks the way society deals with sex?
- Abandoning Romance
Von Trier’s approach to explore the sexual side of humans on screen surpassed the long-held stereotypes of Hollywood; the film simply rids itself of the scented candles and lingerie, and unapologetically aims for the raw human emotion, utterly deconstructing the psychology of each and every one of the characters. Nymphomaniac reaches deep into human relationships, baring the core beliefs of it characters, and entertaining its viewer with equal measures of shock and awe. The film’s promotional line alone was “Forget about Love”, and we truly did for four entire hours. Surprisingly enough, the loveless adventures of Joe turned out to be much more relatable than the superficial and corny romance represented in a major portion of the film industry.
One might learn a lesson or two from “The Little Organ School”, a club formed by a younger Joe and her equally promiscuous friends in their youth. Their main goal was to rebel against “the love fixated society”. Of course it sounds extreme, but it forces its viewer to wonder whether we see the same amount of love represented in the media in the real world? Are humans equally kind and loving to each other as they are devoted to idolizing romantic relationships?
- Challenging the Moral Standards
In the beginning of the film, a very simplistic idea is formed about the characters, one that is based solely on the fundamental moral standards of our society. Joe is the guilty nymphomaniac, Seligman the decent older gentleman, and the rest of the characters complete the spectrum. Whether it’s out of a mischievous urge to frequently prank his viewers, or a genuinely bleak view of the human qualities, Von Trier manages to simply shift the dynamic completely and gradually during the film. At the beginning of the final third of his film, the viewers are suddenly confronted with the fact that Joe, despite her promiscuity, her mischief, and even her illegal business, is in fact the moral warrior of this story. Though offering an enlightening story in film is not exactly the newest of ideas, hundreds of films have done it in the past and hundreds will probably do it in the future, however I believe it is rather rare for any filmmaker to go as far as Nymphomaniac. After all, it requires quite the daring artist to try to convince his audience to sympathize with pedophiles, but then again that’s exactly who Von Trier is.
In conclusion, Von Tier has always been a demanding director. His films require a certain amount of flexibility and a particularly broad-minded audience. Nymphomaniac is easily his most demanding film so far, yet with the right, unprejudiced, and not easily offended mindset, the film offers a dazzling experience seldom found in films. It is simply a ground breaking piece of cinema whose innovation needs to be, if not appreciated, at least respected.