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Nymphomaniac: Von Trier Talking About Von Trier

Nymphomaniac is the third movie of the trilogy created by Danish director Lars von Trier to cope with his own depression (preceded by Antichrist and Melancholia). It was divided in two volumes for its theatrical release because the running time was too long, but it is impossible to analyse them as separates, because in watching it is clear it was idealised as one movie only. However there is a rupture of style and a change of tone in the narrative displayed in each of them.

Sex and religion are recurring themes of the author. Here again they appear as protagonists. Professor Peter Schepelern, University of Copenhagen, in his lecture on the filmmaker, says that the protagonists of Von Trier are martyrs in a world ready to judge their sexuality. This is exactly what happens to Bess in Breaking the Waves. Her sin is believing in people and in believing, have sex with strangers to save her husband. The Christian community rejects her for her acts, although they come from the purest infantile praise to the deity of her belief. Bess is punished and isolated from society because she makes sex wanting to do good. Interestingly, she says that everyone is born good at something and she is good at it, But she is never shown enjoying or having any form of pleasure from the sexual act, even with her husband. Although it she is considered good, she is just a receptacle of the desire  that come from others.

But in Dogville Grace is punished by and through the desire of others. In Antichrist, the female protagonist (unnamed) deals with the guilt for the death of her son, as if it was a direct consequence of her sexual desire. In a simplification, she believes that women are equivalent to nature and nature is the source of all evil. Sex is once more used as punishment. The mirror of Venus is the T in the word Antichrist in the credits. It is hard to see in these works the martyrdom caused by sexual freedom and not plain and simple punishment.

In Nymphomaniac, it seems like von Trier makes comments on his career and the perception that people have about his work. Although the film has been widely publicised as a work bordering on pornography, this is far from reality. Joe (the younger version played by Stacy Martin) deals with sex in a natural way. She decides to get rid of her virginity  without making a big deal about it and therein lies her first disappointment: she’ll find that men saw her as a vessel of desire, as well as Bess.  (Early in the film, even her red vinyl shorts are the same that Bess uses). This becomes clear when remembering the number of times that Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) penetrated her without worrying about her pleasure. Would her actions, like “fishing” men on the train, be perceived as odd if she was a man? Certainly not.

Thereafter she acts almost by necessity and need, seeming only make sex for pleasure after the death of her father (Christian Slater). His death is actually the only moment when it seems that von Trier wants to shock the public and it disconnects from the rest of the first part of the film. By the way, her father was always sympathetic to her. He did not admonish her when she was playing in her childhood (as her mother intended him to do) and he showed her the beauties of the world, teaching her to explore her senses: see the trees, feel the wind, understand life is delightful.

Still, she is her own greatest critic: when she was found injured and unconscious by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), she goes on telling him about her life filled with guilt and judging herself wrong several times.

The conversation with Seligman demonstrates again (as in Antichrist) that von Trier faces the dichotomy man versus woman as Nature and Culture. This is also  the dichotomy largely used in anthropological studies. The man in question punctuates the narrative with knowledge about religion, music, literature and even fishing, while the woman speaks of instincts and experiences and ignores everything he explained.

The narrative, as in his previous films, is divided into chapters, but von Trier calls attention to this act to highlight it as artificial: Joe is shown naming the chapters observing objects on Seligman’s room and relating them to her history. This is not the only time in which the author lets it clear that it is all fiction. At one point he even shows Seligman seem to defend him of the accusations made towards him, as the character speaks: “Being anti-Zionist is not being anti-Semitic.” In another moment Seligman highlights the unlikelihood of something reported by Joe, to which she replies that it does not matter, it is just a story, noting that in the end, in spite of how deeply we analyse the work, it is all cinematic language and inventions.

The girls club that Joe attends to has the motto “mea vulva, mea maxima vulva” and the message is clear subversion of Christian guilt (which she absolutely does not have), as a cry for freedom of those young women about their own bodies.

But somehow Joe is punished for her actions, and we already know it as we  see her hurt, laying in a street at the beginning of the film. In the first volume it does not really seem to come from a deep desire of the director: the narrative seems to absolve the sins she sees in herself. They are actually marker by the society around her. The first volume of the film has an impressive lightness in the way the subjects are dealt and even certain sense of humor (especially the participation of Uma Thurman as Mrs. H).

Just as the actress is changed (to Charlotte Gainsbourg), it seems that Joe changes her personality in the second volume. When watching the first one, we do not see a nymphomaniac, but rather a  woman open about her desires regarding sex.  In the second one it seems that in fact she was a functional addict , but starts to have trouble controlling the way to express these desires. The need to be beaten with increasing frequency by dominating K (Jamie Bell), neglecting her child in a dangerous way, does not follow the sense of the first part of the story. The character just wants to be punished for something that hitherto was not punishable. She shows no pleasure in all the whipping she receives and does not seem to have a fetish about practice. Her only pleasure is the brief moment of masturbation rubbing her body against the books supporting her. When nobody is at home and her child wakes up, gets up and goes to the balcony, and a melodia fills  the scene, it is a (no so) subtle reference to Antichrist. But while in the second it was the woman’s fault , von Trier here laughs as he says to the audience “this time I spared the innocent”. But Joe still has an uncomfortable sense of guilt.

In this half of the movie von Trier also seems to draw more attention to ridicule the situations narrated, like in the sequence in which Joe as a child has a religious vision, for example.

In the first film, thankfully, no incestuous practice was implied between Joe and her kind father. It would be cliché and unnecessary. Incest appears in the second part symbolically. Joe becomes the tutor of a teenage girl, P (Mia Goth), who moves in with her as she reaches the age of legal adulthood. P makes the first move, to much pain and despair of Joe herself, who seemed not to want the relationship initially. But when she is fully engaged on it, the primitive sense of ownership arises and with it jealousy. That is what led her to be laying in the alley at the beginning of the film.

The public may be surprised by the ending, but being Seligman the representation of culture, it is easy to understand that von Trier is implying that our culture normalizes sexual violence against women, especially those who have notoriously active sex life. It is not out of his character to attempt rape. He was just curious, a theorist who has expressed interest in what Joe said she had done with so many people. Joe’s reaction (as well as her speech in support group) echoes the speech of all women in the world: my body is mine, it’s my choice, society should stop trying to control me. The option to hide the outcome on a black screen increased the impact of the final result.

The second movie is less about pleasure and more about pain. Yet, thanks to the outcome, what remains is a powerful message. If the main character was more psychologically and mentally healthy, she probably would be more easily comprehended and accepted. The impeccably beautiful photography of Antichrist and Melancholia is missing. Here the composition approaches the rawness of Dogma 95, but it does not harm the work as a whole. This is a film difficult to digest and  it raises debates, which is more than almost all of contemporary filmmaking. It’s interesting to see a young director already revisiting his own work and answering questions made by his own public. 

CategoriesFeatures Issue 5
Isabel Wittmann

Isabel Wittmann is an Architect, Social Anthropology Master’s Degree student at Universidade Federal do Amazonas (UFAM) as well as a costume design columnist.