You never know quite where you are with Lars Von Trier. Is he serious? Is he peddling provocative, stylized devil’s advocacy? Is he simply running at taboo issues for the sake of it and artfully winding stories around issues he knows will antagonize critics and audiences? That basic uncertainty of motivation that he can’t shake (and loves the fact) is exacerbated by Nymphomania.
Two of the director’s favorites take center stage as the film begins: Charlotte Gainsbourg’s badly-beaten Joe is prodded to life and gingerly rescued by Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman in a dingy, drizzly post-midnight courtyard. He’s unassuming, cautious, and Joe, even in her savagely battered state, is clearly more worldly. They are opposites, as will become more and more apparent as Joe tells her curious and often deeply bizarre and troubling tale, which she will finish as the sun rises, 4 hours later (in terms of running time, at least).
Joe recounts all the elements of her life that she sees as key moments as a developing nymphomaniac (I won’t use the word “evolution”; we’re never given any suggestion as to why she is like she is, and you can’t imagine von Trier being interested in creating a cause and effect biography, thank God). What we see instead of anything moralistically cautionary is choice moments (and von Trier tends towards defiant celebration) in the life of a girl, narrated in part by Gainsbourg, who, after a transformational orgasmic experience as a child (lay in a field, temporarily alone, school-friends nearby, an occasion during which she seems to levitate in euphoric befuddlement), simply becomes compelled to engage in prodigious and often profoundly unfussy sexual activity.
So we see a late-teens through to early-thirties Gainsbourg (played during these scenes by a truly excellent Stacey Martin) playfully requesting that a young local (Shia Leboeuf, perfectly cast as he comes across as a potent combination of aggressively cocksure and not-quite comfortable) take her virginity; patrolling a train with a friend, their simple aim that of wanting to outscore one another with quick conquests (for a bag of chocolate sweets); shagging her way around the city out of unexplained and dizzying compulsion. There is backstory that unhelpfully exposits that she loved her father dearly and would go on forest excursions with him to lovingly examine the trees, and that her mother was deeply selfish and distant. When her father (played very well, in one of many odd casting moves, by Christian Slater) eventually dies, in typically raw, unflinchingly captured fashion, her response is to careen through the hospital corridors all the way to the first available man, who she immediately has sex with.
In providing us with biographical snapshots, representations of her parents, which reveal nothing, von Trier says, “Why are you looking there? There are no answers.”
We eventually move to the older iteration, now both played and voiced by Gainsbourg. Little has changed other than a further submission, this time to the expectations of convention, motherhood, ‘normal’ life, the same middle class comforts and de rigeur accessories that Von Trier so loathes. He so detests them, in fact, that he makes them largely responsible for her losing her sex drive. Her response to such constrictions, the timid cloak of respectability, and to her dwindling desire, if that’s how we can term it (more accurate might be to classify it as a ravenous lust for lust and abandonment) is to enlist a translator to broker a request involving an African man she sees looking shifty outside her window. There’s a dangerous excitement to her need here, as though the further away from “acceptable” behavior she gets the more hurriedly she seeks it. They meet in an appointed hotel room, but he’s brought his brother along. Her request, guileless and frank and abrupt, has led to the expectation that an offer of sex in such a manner equals receptivity to zero limitations: she’s “that kind of woman.” They are arguing from the moment they arrive, and the tryst is aborted when their argument becomes heated. They can’t decide who is doing what to her, where or how, and she walks out as they continue their disagreement.
This scene felt like the prelude to a blackly comic Buñuel digression, but actually turned out to be a very pointed hint at where the film might’ve ventured, had von Trier been a very different director, but ultimately refuses to go. As it is, it’s a brief, satirical sketch that feels like a disjointed fragment, a little too ripe to last any longer than it does. The situation is too fraught with too many conventionally intriguing elements for von Trier to hang around in such territory.
Jo continues to fail to understand her behavior, as do we, despite searching for clues, of which there are many that don’t add up. Retrospection casts no light here beyond the one we’re afforded: to coldly observe her largely passionless resumption of yet further bedroom scenes that play out like afterthoughts. Most of her encounters offer her nothing but the quickly disappointing scratching of an itch, and when her segue into bizarre danger fails to reignite her libido, she seeks out Jamie Bell’s shadowy sex therapist, whose mysterious, grubby, deeply unconventional techniques, which happily seem to offer him no gratification, violently return her to an unfathomable virility.
There is a similar distaste for delusion and fabricating more digestible selves here that can be found right through von Trier’s work. It’s certainly no surprise when, during a sex-addict meeting (another concession she’s made to morality and “accepted solutions” and “rehabilitation”), Joe, who has tried to play the game, finally erupts and demolishes what she sees as a ridiculous charade. She reclaims the tag “nymphomaniac,” which those present have shied away from at the expense of the far less stigmatic “sex addict,” and all the negative connotations everyone else clearly associates that term with. She is not a victim, susceptible to a “disease”; she is simply, naturally, stuck with a rampant proclivity, and rather than fight it, she’s ready to accept her fate and her inextricably sex-bound self. She wants everyone else at the meeting to share her ebullient sense of emancipated enslavery, as von Trier would wish us to throw away any illusions we might have re: what hopeless animals we all are. Would a von Trier film titled Alcoholic run similarly? Has Mike Figgis already made it?
A very simple observation on the casting: von Trier likes to rub the sheen off prettiness and have a bit of glitz writhing around in grime. He hates facades, how much of a con they are, so scrubs them and besmirches them until they’re like Christian Slater ends up, incontinent and death-bound, or Uma Thurman, tear-streaked, abandoned and raging. I think he just likes trampling flowerbeds. Why else put such actors in these roles? They could be played by any number of alternatives. Von Trier’s no fan of the film industry, and was appalled at the suggestion that Melancholia was “too Hollywood.” Here he plucks a handful of its faded stars and exposes them in a variety of ways. They buy into it as actors experiencing a CV boost and “substantial cinema” and he pokes fun at them, like a ringmaster with a stick, drawing out the kind of performances most have long since forgotten they were capable of and probably chuckling at how game they all are.
Here’s the thing: von Trier, for me, in trying to rub our noses in it, provides us with some thrillingly envelope-pushing tales. I take the medicine and then head back out into the world happy to renounce most of what he has to say, reinvigorated about my dalliance with brilliantly conceived nihilism, happy that someone is making these stubborn, argumentative, mesmerizing films. His message is incredibly simple, brazenly unchanging, bleakly adamant and predictably confrontational: we’re all fucked so we might as well, at the very least, be who we are, if we know who that is. Authenticity is key. But it’s all in the telling: horribly amused, endlessly, antagonistically fascinated. If you can take your brilliance cold there’s plenty here. Is he purely goading us? It’s fun — most of the time — trying to figure it out.