A dark, grimy alley: snow falls melts, and drips onto the lid of a garbage can as the camera pans in complete silence. The camera fixates on a large, square hole, slowly zooms in, and consumes the world in darkness. Cut to Joe, battered, bruised, crumpled in a heap, unmoving in the middle of the alley. From complete silence, chaos erupts as rock music blares over Joe’s still form, the aural indicator of an uncaring world. If rock bottom is a place, it’s surely here. It is from here that Nymphomaniac unfolds.
Nymphomaniac is ostensibly a film about sex: Joe recounts her incalculable sexual exploits in an attempt to make sense of her life as if her present misfortune is a direct consequence of the life she’s led. Told to Seligman, a Good Samaritan and erudite loner, Joe’s story is primarily one woman’s struggle to live within society’s accepted norms for women, including love, marriage, children, and most importantly, sex.
However, Nymphomaniac also exists in relation to Trier’s two preceding films, Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011), together forming what has been named the ‘depression’-trilogy, a series of films born, and dealing with, Trier’s own neuroses. Together, they form a three-part mosaic of the darkness within man: human loss, its capacity for evil, its reconciliation with its own mortality, and, in the case of Nymphomaniac, its capacity for self-destruction and search for identity. It is in light of their personal relevance to von Trier that Nymphomaniac, and its question of the individual’s right of self-realization, becomes an even more compelling narrative.
Easily identifiable as an impromptu therapy-session, Joe’s decision to tell Seligman her story is mostly for her own benefit and it sees her try and make sense of her life and actions, but more importantly herself, emphasizing the struggle as caused by her sexual exploits, activities that go against the societal grain and its imposed values. It’s a story of Joe coming to terms with who or what she is, a journey made incredibly difficult by the taboo nature of the female as sexual being, and this same controversy is exacerbated by Joe’s defiance of these societal constraints in embracing the labeling as a nymphomaniac. While Joe’s story is her own, the central contestation of Joe’s right to express her sexuality, her personality, bears a curious resemblance to Lars von Trier’s own personal struggles. As a result, there is a compelling argument to be made that Joe in many ways act as a proxy for Trier, that she provides an outlet for Trier’s frustration, and that the film as a whole is a vilification of all the societal hypocrisy that von Trier feels himself a victim of. Most important is that Nymphomaniac, when kept to its core themes of self-realization and acceptance in the face of societal outrage, is autobiographical.
At a now infamous press conference at the 2011 Cannes film festival, Lars von Trier made a series of comments that were seized upon by the media at large. Regardless of their intention, Triers remarks of anti-Semitism and Nazi-sympathies fuelled a public outrage that culminated in the festival expelling Trier, and branding him a persona non grata. Since then, Trier vowed to cease all public promotion for his films, and an already reclusive filmmaker withdrew even more from the public eye.
Joe is at her lowest as Nymphomaniac begins, and the recounting of her exploits is meant to convince Seligman of Joe’s bad character. Calling herself a ‘bad person’ Joe tells of her escapades, including her role in breaking apart a marriage, the failure of her own, and her abandonment of her child, all because of her insatiable need for sex. For all her failings, sex remains the central part of her life, for better or worse, and that same devotion to the indulgence of instinctual desires remains central to Trier’s work.
Elements of the Cannes-controversy also find their way into Nymphomaniac in more explicit form: the term ‘Negro’ is said by Joe, and Seligman’s protestations to her use of the expletive sparks sermon on what she believes to be the evils of political-correctness, saying “each time a word is prohibited, you remove a stone from the democratic foundation.” This question of censorship is more readily applied to Trier, as more than just a single word, this same idea of censorship also extends to the silencing of an individual, the willing into non-existence of a dissenting voice. To describe the governing bodies that decide the ‘correctness’ of a given word, idea, or person, Joe is damningly succinct: “hypocrisy.” Whatever one may think of Joe’s, or by extension, Trier’s sentiments, emphasis remains on the virtue of the individual’s freedom to “call a spade a spade.” This freedom of expression, in whatever form, is sacred to the ethos of Nymphomaniac, particularly when that freedom is encroached upon by the censorship of society’s self-proclaimed moralists. This sentiment is further bolstered later as Joe is forced to attend meetings for her ‘addiction.’
Made to attend meetings for sex-addicts, Joe is placed in a closed circle in an empty theater where she is told she, and her fellow addicts, are “all the same,” leveled by their common addiction. Instructed to “reduce incentive” and “remove exposure” to the parts of their lives that lead to them indulging their desire, Joe must remodel her home. The result: padded edges, painted-over mirrors, and Joe lying in a near-empty apartment, on a naked mattress, wearing gloves and coat, completely immobilized. This complete negation, complete whitewashing prompts Joe’s ire, and at the next meeting she lambasts both the other women, the instructor, and the ideology she serves. Joe claims that they “are not alike,” as they have different “reasons to fuck.” Whether for acceptance, for sex’s implied affection, or as misconstrued love, the other women are addicted to the things they feel sex can grant them. For Joe, however, sex is an end unto itself, and these meetings consequently threaten the essence of Joe’s existence, as without sex, what is she really? Joe’s rejection of society’s opinion of her marks her claim to self-agency and self-acceptance. When Joe states that she won’t be condemned by “society’s morality police,” she also refuses to censor her own sexuality and her “obscenity.” The speech culminates in declaration of personhood: “I am a nymphomaniac, and I love myself for it.” Joe self-identifies as a ‘nymphomaniac’ and rejects the labeling of sex-addict, a term laden with judgment meant to imply an unhealthy dependency, or at the very least, a flaw in character. What remains is a woman who won’t let society tell her what to say, think, or feel.
Make no mistake, Nymphomaniac is not an uplifting bildungsroman, nor is it a triumph of one woman’s ability to overcome obstacles put in her way. Joe is the first to admit the severity of her actions, especially when her actions have significant consequences for others. Her self-hatred is genuine, but more importantly, so is her self-acceptance at the end, and that acceptance enables her promise at the end of the film. Joe vows to rid herself of her own sexuality, to somehow remove the Rosetta stone of her existence so far. A source of her pleasure, it has also been the source of her unhappiness. Ridding herself of her sexuality and undertaking an emotional cleansing is a task Joe is prepared to take on, however challenging. Most importantly, she makes this decision according to her own wishes and not out of defeat. Instead of surrender, there is a commitment borne from self-awareness.
Comparing Joe’s struggle to Trier’s career as a filmmaker is a compelling endeavor; the possibility of personal significance in an author’s work lends it emotional gravitas and instills a sense that one is witnessing personal history being made. Whatever the case may be, Nymphomaniac is at it’s core about the struggle of self-realization. If not just for von Trier, then for all of us – if not a film about one person, at least then a film about personhood.