Saturday, July 30, 2016

"Nymphomaniac" by Lars von Trier (a review)

“Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II”
“Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II, Director’s Cut"

The best way for me to help prepare you for watching this movie is probably to provide a bunch of disclaimers at the outset. I should also acknowledge that yes, this review is long, and getting through it requires the kind of stamina you'll need in order to make it through this movie, even if you don’t go whole-hog and watch the extended director’s version. This is also the kind of "review" (I use quotation marks because I'll come clean here and admit that I loved the movie; the post that follows is more of a discussion than a proper critique) that might best be read after watching the movie, to see if your thoughts and impressions align in places with mine. Here are a few caveats:

This movie is not for everyone.
Even if you consider yourself, as I do in my more pompous moments, one of the open-minded, arty-inclined, freethinking, liberal intelligentsia (or, OK, only remotely intelligentsia-adjacent in my case, meaning I read Harper’s and the New York Review of Books and listen to NPR), capable of appreciating and/or stomaching ideas and images that would make hoi polloi recoil in revulsion or, at best, furrow their Neanderthal brows in confusion… this movie still might not be for you.

Even if you, like me, have friends of all sexual orientations and inclinations, are unfazed when a pal announces their polyamory or decision to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, have attended kink-themed clubs and parties, posed nude in photos that appear in public online places, read and/or write stories that frequently feature sexual deviancy and atheism, have explored sado-masochism and other non-vanilla sexual acts, and have a FetLife account
– even then, this movie might not be for you.

(Want to quickly check to see if this movie contains any of your personal triggers or other subject matter you consider beyond the pale? See my “Necessary Spoilers/Triggers” section at the bottom of this post.)

It's not porn.
The movie isn’t actually about sex, even though there’s lots of sex in it. A lot of sex – so much that it starts to just feel like the wallpaper, like the background, which it is. There’s more sex than you’ll see in a typical R-Rated movie that makes it into theaters, and it’s different from the sex you’ll see in those typical R-Rated movies – I would say the sex in "Nymphomaniac" is more realistic. There’s full-frontal nudity (I’ve read that the actors used body doubles and prosthetic private parts), numerous scenes showing every variety of penetration, graphic depictions of sado-masochism, and lots of other descriptors you could use as PornHub tags; again, see my spoilers/triggers part below for the full catalog of smut.

But again, this isn’t porn; it isn’t designed to get you off. It’s a story that features a lot of sex, in a frank way. (A visual clue that this movie isn't about sex: At one point in the story, as a character is discussing how helpful it can be to look at familiar things from a new angle, an image is shown of what appears to be a vagina, presented in clinical close-up; the camera pivots 90 degrees to the side, and what appeared to be a vagina opens, as it turns out to have been a closed eye.)

What’s it really about, then? Loneliness. Addiction. Depression. More on this below, under “Themes.”

It helps to have some knowledge of what Lars von Trier is all about
– that he’s known for being an incorrigible prankster, an enfant terrible, a gleeful provocateur, and probably some other French words meaning “someone who is intentionally controversial in order to make you think, and who gets his jollies from being a bit cruel to his audience.”

I think he’s frequently misunderstood. Here’s a story about Lars that I would guess was a major impetus for his creating this particular movie:

During a cast interview at the Cannes film festival while promoting his movie “Melancholia,” an interview during which he was newly, uncharacteristically, and uncomfortably sober (and also speaking in English, not his native language even though his films are typically primarily in English), he began to muse aloud about being able to “understand Hitler,” and although even in that moment he was quick to point out that he of course wished World War II, and by implied extension the Holocaust, hadn't happened (Lars long believed that the Jewish man who would later turn out to be his stepfather was his biological father, before his mother told him the truth on her deathbed; Lars's surname and his kids’ surname, Trier, is of Jewish heritage), and admitted, with a nervous chuckle, at the time that he hadn’t thought out what he was saying, he was (understandably) not only excoriated in the press, but kicked out of the festival – the term “persona non grata” was used a lot in things I’ve read about this incident.

He stopped giving interviews for a long time after that, fearing he would again be misunderstood, and ostracized.

The thing is – I sort of get what he was probably trying to say. (And no, good grief, for the record – I do not understand Hitler; my family is part-Jewish, too, and even if they weren't, I'm as aware as anyone that some people in this world are or were nothing more or less than the human embodiment of evil. I do, however, wish to understand Lars von Trier, whom I honestly believe was gravely misunderstood in this instance. Or so I hope, at least.) Subversive artists in the vein of Lars von Trier sometimes spend their lives trying to get inside the minds and souls of outsiders and even outright monsters – you have to in order to make art about them.

It’s kind of like if you’re working in, say, counter-propaganda to combat the messages and morale of jihadists (I once briefly had a freelance gig in this line of work, believe it or not) – in order to create messages that will resonate with or rattle the jihadists, you have to be able to think like them, at least to a certain extent. You have to, as incredible as it sounds, be able to sort of empathize with them – at least enough to understand what drives them.
(It was even our practice to use the word "jihadist" instead of "terrorist," the former seeming more objective, factual, not necessarily judging; "terrorist" being, of course, a subjective, if also factual, label used by the enemies of these groups, a moniker with built-in blame. And again: we were in counter-propaganda; we were against these guys, but striving to at least somewhat be able to think like them, and the specific words we use can have an effect on this.)

I’ve also read in interviews that Lars – upon learning that his actual biological father is a man of German extraction – has in more recent years joked about finding out he’s “a Nazi,” using the term more as self-deprecating slang for “German” in a way he says is more readily understood where he's from (he says his “Danish humor” is often lost in translation), especially considering the irony of his having long thought of himself as half of Jewish descent. In other words: There’s a lot of possibly extenuating context to what might have seemed like just an appallingly callous off-the-cuff remark.

Before I go into more detail about "things you should know about Lars," I will quickly interject to point out that I am referring to the filmmaker by his first name instead of “von Trier” because, from what I gather, “Lars von Trier” is his filmmaker persona, and “Lars Trier” (his legal name; he added the aristocratic-sounding “von” for film credits as sort of a private joke) is the off-duty “civilian” away from movie-making, and the person or entity I’m talking about here is both. I do look to biographical resources to understand an artist’s work; sometimes it’s relevant and sometimes it’s not, but in Lars’s case, I feel, his childhood and life are deeply relevant to his artistic work. He's said as much in multiple interviews I've read online.

Stuff about Lars: self-flagellation

As stated above, I believe the unfortunate and bumble-brained incident at Cannes is the episode from Lars's life that gave birth to "Nymphomaniac."

One of the first things that Joe, the movie's protagonist and possibly its heroine (or anti-heroine; see a fuller fleshing-out of the plot below, under "Themes"), announces about herself to Seligman, the man who finds her beaten in an alley (the movie is styled like a confession of Joe’s sins to the self-admittedly monk-like Seligman), is that she’s a terrible human being. Lars appears to have been wracked with guilt and self-doubt following the Cannes gaffe, by turns ashamed and righteously defensive. I would guess that the character of Joe was born of this mix of self-hatred and defiance, and at several points – most notably in the longer director’s cut – Joe is clearly a mouthpiece for Lars. In one scene she parrots almost verbatim Lars’s remarks at the film festival, albeit this time with the space to fully articulate and expand on his point, which I think is simply: Human beings have the capacity to be monsters. No celebrity of history has the monopoly on this; it’s an evil vein that can be tapped by many, even those with no wish to act on it. (In other words, not “I am evil,” but “We are evil” – or “We are capable of evil.” Hitler didn’t act alone.)

Stuff about Lars: sadism

It’s fitting that a significant chapter of the movie (it literally has chapters, numbered and with symbolic titles that appear on the screen) deals with sadism; I have long thought of the word “sadist” when I think of Lars von Trier’s work.

I haven’t seen all of his movies, although this is my goal. I saw “Breaking the Waves” when I was in college, and it promptly became my favorite movie at the time. The more documentary “The Five Obstructions,” in which Lars issues a series of creative challenges to fellow Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth, is still one of my favorite movies. And “Dancer in the Dark” (the bleak musical with Björk in it) is brilliant and (I would say intentionally, sadistically) crushing – as in, just you try and get through the ending without bawling; Lars dares you to.

I rented “Dogville” years ago, and dutifully respected certain new ideas and ways of “doing” a movie (it’s the one with Nicole Kidman in it, and the “town” is all laid out on a stage with place names written out in chalk, that sort of literal theatricality), but have long since forgotten most of it (one thing I vividly remember is the end credits
– I recall that the film was somewhat of a critique of the U.S., a place that Lars, being afraid of flying, has never visited, and so the ending credits are shown over images depicting American poverty while David Bowie's "Young Americans" plays, jaunty and contextually irreverent, over them). I saw “Melancholia” in the theater and recall “liking” it, but it, too, has strangely faded from my memory, aside from a handful of dreamy images and an overall sense of the depressive mood. That I remember so little of these two movies is surprising to me, considering how much of an impact the three movies mentioned in the above paragraph left on me.

From my first viewing of “Breaking the Waves” and on through to the first time I saw “Dancer in the Dark” in the theater (I saw it no fewer than three times at the movies before I bought the DVD and saw it more times, even subjecting my own mom to it), I of course got that his movies are frequently hard to watch, in a way that makes you want to cringe and flinch and look away from the screen. A way that makes you want to say, “Enough!” (not unlike the simultaneously mortified and protectively sororal Kirsten Dunst in that cringe-inducing clip from Cannes) and rescue the poor character or actor upon whom Lars is currently directing his sadistic explorations.

His films aren't hard to watch because they feature graphic things such as eyeballs getting sliced
à la "Un Chien Andalou." The pain Lars inflicts upon his viewers is more cunningly emotional. The third time I saw "Dancer in the Dark" at the theater, my friend and I brought along her sensitive teenage brother; I remember he was crying as we left the theater, and said: "That was the saddest movie I ever saw." And I remember that my chief feeling was one of quiet anger at Lars von Trier, for manipulating this sensitive young guy's emotions, and for doing it so deftly, and without some of the more vulnerable members of the audience realizing they've been at least somewhat punked.

Stuff about Lars: critics' claims of misogyny

What happens to Bess, Emily Watson’s innocent character in “Breaking the Waves"
– she is perversely encouraged by her convalescing husband (who’s been injured, shortly after their marriage, during an accident at the oil rig he works on) to go engage in sexual adventures with other men while he’s laid up leaves her physically and otherwise battered. Looking back, I can’t help thinking that the out-of-commission husband is a sort of stand-in for Lars, the husband “directing” Bess for motives that seem just as self-flagellating for him as voyeuristic. (A similar situation arises in “Nymphomaniac” when Joe is told by her exhausted husband that he can no longer satisfy her all by himself, and he grudgingly suggests she have sex with other men, a situation he likens to needing help “feeding a tiger;" the circus-playfulness of this phrase downplays Joe's husband's awareness that she needs more than he can give, and that her craving for "more" goes beyond the merely sexual.)

In addition to putting his (typically female) protagonists through hell, I’ve read that Lars is demanding of his actors – perhaps most notably Björk, who I’ve read swore off acting after playing, for Lars's "Dancer in the Dark," the role of a desperate mother with a degenerative eye condition (she's rapidly going blind) whose son has inherited the same disease;
Björk's character, Selma, is a pure soul who is eventually convicted of murder, and watching her execution scene is no less emotionally grueling than watching a puppy get slaughtered.

album “Vespertine” came out shortly after her time working with Lars to inhabit the character of Selma for “Dancer in the Dark.” (There was also a wonderful soundtrack to “Dancer in the Dark” that consisted of a handful of new Björk tracks for the movie; her character flees the tedium of her life by mentally escaping into the world of musicals.) If you listen to “Vespertine,” an album whose title means "night-blooming," the whole album comes off like the sort of self-soothing lullaby you’d sing or play yourself during or after emerging from a trauma. (A statement on the album’s Wikipedia page corroborates this for me: “As the process of filming demanded that she be extroverted, the new music she was creating became hushed and tranquil as a way to escape.” I would wager that filming, with Lars von Trier, required far more of her sensitive nature than merely being more “extroverted.”)

It’s stuff like this, I think, that has led to claims that Lars is misogynistic – all those heroines going through hell, film after film. Even someone like me, who admires and enjoys (even as I suffer) Lars’s work, has to admit that, when you stack up example after example of this, it makes you go, “Hmm.” And again, the more printed interviews with Lars that I read, the more I get the sense that this is a guy who enjoys almost nothing more than getting some sort of rise – any kind of rise – out of people. The type of person for whom complacency and convention, resting on one’s laurels, going with the mainstream flow (even when it comes to accepting without question that some monsters, i.e., Hitler, are beyond our empathy, even in the name of understanding what makes them tick), are tantamount to death.

I'm in no position to weigh in on how mean or nice Lars is to his actors, female or male. But as a woman, I have to say – I watch Lars’s films (in particular, the ones whose protagonists are female), and I feel uniquely understood.

I never related to the girl-power vehicles I felt I was supposed to, the ones – some of them created/written by women – typically featuring an ensemble cast of female friends dealing with conspicuously feminine issues such as the hackneyed “having it all” (job, baby) or the hypocrisy of a world that rewards masculine aggression but frowns upon women who exhibit it. Which is odd, because I've just realized that Joe from “Nymphomaniac” deals to some extent with both of these issues, and yet in many ways I felt a strong connection to her.

But then, Joe deals with them alone – utterly alone, friendless (a glaring dearth of brunch or karaoke companions when compared to the women or girls in those other movies and TV shows), ultimately rejecting “society” itself because she feels it has no place for her (or she has no place for it).
She tells off each member of a "sex addicts" support group rather than join them, announcing that she's not like them before leaving the group forever. Feeling, as I do, almost squeamish at merely the prospect of trying to foster more female camaraderie, or any camaraderie at all, in my life this is a character I can relate to, brunch be damned.

The joke being, of course, that this female character to whom I relate so strongly is, I'm convinced, simply a stand-in for Lars. It makes me think of how I've read that the male actors who made up the Canadian sketch-comedy troupe "The Kids in the Hall" were so convincing when playing female characters because they spoke, for the most part, in their own voices; they didn't tend to speak in a high-pitched, cartoonish, hysterical shrill. I think that Lars creates his female characters in a similar spirit, focusing not on the differences among genders but instead on what makes us human.


Before I dive into the themes, it would probably be helpful for any reader who hasn’t yet seen the movie if I at least briefly summarized the story

An older middle-aged man, Seligman, finds a younger woman, Joe, lying, beaten, in an alley near his home. He speaks to her, saying he’ll call an ambulance. She tells him not to bother – that she has brought this upon herself. He helps her to her feet and invites her to rest in his guest bed. While she rests, Seligman brings her tea and asks about the circumstances that brought her to the place where he found her. And she begins her story, insisting, in a traditional manner, that in order for him to understand, she’ll have to start from the beginning, and plainly announcing that she’s a nymphomaniac.

This is the story in “present-day time;” it's a storytelling movie, so the rest of the film consists of flashbacks narrated by Joe and – notably – digressions by the well-read and encyclopedic Seligman, who lives a monk-like existence immersed in his many books. I say the digressions are “notable” mostly because I read in an interview with Lars that the movie was in large part an “excuse” for him (Lars) to make a bunch of digressions about random things that, for whatever reason, interested him. However, knowing what I do of Lars’s self-effacing and dark humor, his magician’s gift for misdirection, and his disdain (reflected in Joe, a stand-in for Lars) for sentimentality, I wonder if he simply felt it was more acceptable on some level, more stoic or even more masculine, to make that claim, when I sense that there was a whole lot more of him that went into this story than a penchant for digressions about fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers.

When I first watched the movie (both the theater versions and the director’s cut suddenly appeared on Netflix; I had known about the movie but hadn’t been sure I could find a willing victim to see it with me in the theater, or find a theater near me playing it in the first place), I went in innocent.
I avoided reading reviews or interviews with Lars, curious to see what I would make of the movie on my own. This strikes me as appropriate now, because Seligman, who is clearly the movie’s stand-in for the audience, says at one point to Joe that he’s the perfect audience for her because Seligman, who is asexual, is “an innocent;he enters Joe's story with no preconceived notions.


It wasn’t until later, especially after reading a few interviews with Lars that I found online, that some additional thoughts about the movie's themes crystallized, but one thing I picked up very clearly on my own was the pervasive atmosphere of loneliness. At two points in the movie, Joe says to a lover: “Fill all my holes, please.” The first time, it just comes off as dirty talk in bed; the second time, as Joe lies beaten and alone in the alley and snow begins to fall, a more profoundly metaphorical meaning becomes achingly clear.

The theme of loneliness isn't an Easter egg tucked away for only the clever to ferret out, like a clue in a mystery story; Joe comes right out and discusses her loneliness, as frankly as she speaks about her sexual past.

The most obvious example of this is at one point in Volume I when she concludes telling an episode from her early-adult life with a coda from her childhood. In a chapter titled "Mrs. H.,” the titular character is a wife whose husband has just left her and their three sons for Joe, all because of a misunderstanding – Joe, trying to get rid of Mr. H. before her next scheduled lover arrives for dinner, exasperatedly tries to repel H. by telling him he has to go because she "loves him too much," and that it's too hard for Joe not to have H. all to herself. H. unwittingly calls her on her bluff by returning to Joe's flat with his suitcases, having left his family.

During a painful confrontation at Joe’s apartment at which all three children are present, Mrs. H. presciently tells Joe that she won't be able to handle loneliness later in life, a comment surely sparked by the revolving-door/turnstile succession of men who visit Joe’s flat each night (one of whom arrives right in the middle of Mrs. H.'s confrontation of Joe).

Next we see a much earlier flashback, of Joe lying alone in a wheeled hospital bed prior to a minor surgical procedure, looking into the operating room as the medical staff prepares for the surgery, and feeling as if she has to pass through an impenetrable portal by herself.

When Joe, narrating this childhood scene, speaks about feeling utterly alone in the universe, we see celestial swirls and detritus in space, an image that evokes feelings of total isolation, which I later read was a visual taken directly from "Melancholia," Lars’s film about a mysterious planet that is slowly approaching Earth to destroy it. In that film, it’s the depressive character who is the most calm; I’ve read that Lars got the idea for “Melancholia” upon reading that depressive people are often calm during a crisis.


There’s a lot of overlap between this and the previously mentioned theme, but I do think there’s a fairly clear distinction between them. Loneliness is a more universally human, existential condition; what I consider to be outright depression – having been intimately familiar with manic depression/bi-polar disorder during a 10-year relationship with a significant other who struggled with these illnesses – is more debilitating, life-crippling. From what I’ve read, Lars suffers from both the more existential loneliness and clinical depression.

Again, this is no Easter egg for only the clever to discover. “Nypmphomaniac” is part of a trilogy of movies, including “Melancholia” as well as a movie called “Antichrist" (which I haven't seen), that Lars refers to as his “Depression Trilogy.” I’m hard-pressed to think of any scenes or signs that led me to believe Joe suffered from clinical depression – versus “ordinary” human loneliness, perhaps to a higher degree than more socially integrated folk. But here we find more overlap, because we've probably all heard stories about people with depression self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, and perhaps other distractions. And addiction – the question of whether that word, with its connotations of powerlessness and its derogatory insinuations, is an accurate descriptor for Joe and others; and if so, if that’s even a bad thing – cuts a dominant streak throughout the film, most literally in Volume II.

Addiction – or, "Addiction"

In the vein of “It isn’t porn” – I think it can be illuminating to view Joe’s nymphomania (her preferred term) as an analogue for what Lars has referred to in more recent interviews as his dependency on alcohol and drugs in order to create art. As noted earlier in this post, in at least one recent interview Lars described himself as grudgingly, unhappily sober; apparently his use of alcohol and unspecified drugs was affecting his day-to-day life, and coming clean was a necessity. But he says he created all of his other movies while under the influence of something or other – IndieWire’s summary of a rare interview Lars acquiesced to for a Danish publication sums up: “He wrote ‘Dogville’ on a 12-day high, while the script to ‘Nymphomaniac,’ the only film he’s written while sober, took him a year and a half to complete.”

This view is nothing new (the article itself mentions a litany of earlier artists who relied on various substances in order to create) – and, in my opinion, it’s bullshit; “Nymphomaniac” is just as good (and just as ballsy, and weird) as anything else Lars has ever done. I did sense a slowness, a contemplativeness, in “Nymphomaniac” that I only recall existing in brief flashes in some of his other movies, but that could be more due to my faulty memory and willfully selective perception than anything else. The film does feel sober – but in the best possible sense. There are recurring scenes of Joe taking walks in the woods; they made me think of the Nietzsche quote: “Never trust a thought that didn’t come by walking.” As someone who can only create pouty, juvenile trash when drunk, I tend to extend this thought: “Never trust a thought that didn’t come when sober.” Luckily it appears that Lars can work either way, whether it’s his preference, and whether he chooses to admit this, or not.

I felt Lars’s rebellion regarding society’s view of the “addict” most strongly during the most obvious part of the movie to do so: in the scenes that show Joe attending, urged by her female boss at her blankly nondescript office job, a group meeting for “sex addicts.” (This is a victimizing term Joe repeatedly rejects, preferring the title of the movie itself, with its defiant and triumphal embrace of a lionish, lusty "mania.") The support-group scenes are depicted as precisely the nightmare that any addicted person with even the mildest strain of contrariness has envisioned upon considering the possibility of attending such meetings: the cold, empty gymnasium and the grade-school chairs; a circle of sad, cowed souls who have lost their fire and “drunk the Kool-Aid,” swallowing the manifesto of Alcoholics Anonymous or whatever other larger organization is fostering this smaller outpost; a thoroughly indoctrinated (“brainwashed”) group leader full of smugness and false empathy, parroting whole phrases from some workbook or simply heard repeated at so many meetings that they’ve become subconscious, instinctive.

Perhaps a bit predictably, Joe at first tries to rid herself of her lust in earnest. By this point in the story, she has lost both her husband and their small son; her husband, Jerôme (played by Shia LaBeouf, with a depth and virtuosity that surprised me, having only seen him in “Transformers” and a few weird memes; see more about this below, in “A Note About Casting”), has left and taken their son, Marcel, away. Jerôme does this after Joe has abandoned the toddler alone at home too many nights to head for the lair of a demanding sadist who insists that his women be available in his waiting room between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m. if they hope to be selected to come back to his Spartan whipping dungeon.

I should insert here that Joe does not visit the sadist on some sort of freewheeling lark; by this point in the story, she has "lost all sensation in [her] cunt," and is hopelessly searching for something, anything, that will make her feel again. The sadist, whom she hears about by word of mouth and whose waiting room she crashes in desperation, appears to Joe as her only shot at a kind of salvation, her last hope for reaching that euphoric height ever again. She is portrayed as not taking her decision
– to pursue the only kind of ecstasy she has ever known, instead of attempting to be a dutiful and selflessly attentive mother – lightly. I should also insert that actor Jamie Bell plays the sadist to exquisite perfection, striking the right balance of convincing sternness tempered with a strange kind of formal decency (laying out the rules of the game, only engaging in sex play with women who are obviously willing and excited to be there – he sends Joe away at first, after checking her level of dampness as if she were "a potted plant," as Joe describes it to Seligman; the sadist tells Joe he's unsure that "this is for you," as he puts it) that I've noticed among people who commit to sexual sadism as a lifestyle.

In her quest to cure herself of lust, we see Joe go home to her flat and try to rid it of anything that makes her think of sex, per the support-group leader’s suggestion. In one of many effectively comic sequences in the movie, we see her taping off doorknobs and showerheads, ripping down prints of Japanese erotica from her bedroom wall, painting over the surfaces of mirrors. The sequence ends with Joe lying in bed, wrapped sexlessly in her bulky black coat, the scene all done in industrial whites and grays, lying there as if she’s a corpse or a ritual sacrifice. With nearly nothing left unscathed by her censorship, she turns to the one non-sex comfort she has: her “herbarium,” a messy scrapbook onto whose pages she has pasted the leaves of several local trees; her beloved late father, a medical doctor and normally a pragmatic man, took joy in making up poetic origin stories about the trees and their leaves to tell Joe on their walks through the woods. (See more on this theme in the next topic below.)

Ultimately – again, as you might expect – Joe rejects the support group’s dogma. This realization occurs as Joe is standing to speak to the group, seeming at first to have become another one of the sad, cowed souls that most addicts probably fear becoming if they let go of their beloved substances (although, again: I understand but don’t share this fearful view of sobriety). She has prepared what seems as if it’s going to be a pitiful little talk, a dutiful concession speech; she announces that it’s been two weeks and five days since she’s had sex, and the group politely (but a bit feebly, perhaps half-heartedly) claps. While shuffling through her notes, Joe happens to glance up and see a vision of her younger self seated near the group, watching raptly, as if awaiting instructions.

Upon glimpsing her young self, Joe becomes flustered, and ultimately defiant – ripping up her notes, and telling off the group members in succession, confronting them, without the “false empathy” of the moderator, in stark terms about what their real problems are (one has a bottomless need for validation, another also overeats and seemingly will use nearly anything to fill up her emptiness). Contrary to the group’s mantra that the women are all alike, Joe spits out that she’s nothing like them, and proudly announces that she’s a nymphomaniac, that she loves herself for it, “…and I love my filthy, filthy lust.” Again, upon reading the interview linked to above in which Lars clearly takes issue with the accepted views of addiction and sobriety – this scene seemed to me one of many in which Joe is Lars’s stand-in, saying things he wishes he could say. Things he does say, through his character Joe.  

Only in the director’s cut of Volume II do we see any of the other women in Joe’s sex-addicts group fleshed out by way of a story. A conventionally attractive blonde woman tells her tale of trying to cure her sex addiction by sort of "overdosing," getting it all out of her system at once. She invites a large number of different men to meet her at, inexplicably, a coal pile; when the men arrive, she’s lying, naked and voluptuous, and (again, a bit inexplicably) smearing herself with coal dust as we sense the men are about to approach her.

Having thought some more about the movie’s themes, I think I now get the part with the coal pile. I think it has to do with the theme of…

Trees -- or, "Trees"

Did I mention that this work in its entirety – even “just” the theater version, which is in two volumes – is long? There are so many rich, fraught scenes and symbols I’m leaving out. For example, there's the story that takes place on the train, with teenage Joe and her friend “B.” kitted out in their best “fuck me now” clothes, engaging in a friendly competition to have sex with the most guys, a contest in which the prize is ostensibly a bag of chocolate “sweets” but the true prize is a jolt to the winner’s pride. Seligman makes his most effective and apropos use of digressions here, comparing the girls’ prowling for men to the incongruously chaste art of fly fishing. I’m leaving out an entire integral character, a young woman named P., for whom Joe becomes first caretaker then, when P. is of legal age, Joe becomes her sexual conquest. I’m leaving out Joe’s eventual sub-legal career in what her employer euphemistically terms “debt collection.” I’m leaving out the scenes at the hospital where Joe’s father is dying, and her humiliating initiation into the sadist’s cast of regulars.

But it would really be remiss for me to not talk about the trees. Although, ironically, I almost wish Lars had shown less about the trees; some themes are so beautiful that, paradoxically, you want to only glimpse them, as if fearful that looking too long and too hard will take away some of their power.

Throughout Joe’s confessional narration, she alludes to a story first told early in Volume I, about her father teaching her how to identify the different types of leaves to be found in the woods where they took their walks. Unlike her cold mother, Joe’s father – in her telling of her life story, at least – appears as a warm and wise figure, the kind of dream parent with whom the child has a special, nigh-psychic bond.

There’s one story in particular that her father makes up about the leaves, and it’s repeated and alluded to so often in the film that the viewer has no choice but to try to discern its significance. This is the story of the ash tree, "the most beautiful tree in the forest," as her father intones in the singsong cadence used for telling fairy tales. All the other trees were jealous of the ash tree, and in winter, when the ash tree was bare of leaves and its black buds were visible, the other trees would laugh and say, “Look at the ash tree – it’s had its fingers in the ash.”

As a creative writer who deals in symbolism myself, I approve of the ambiguity of the story; its meaning isn’t immediately apparent (or at least, it wasn’t to me). It wasn’t until after I’d watched the movie again in its “director’s cut” iteration, and thought about the work some more as a whole, that I began to reckon the ash tree in the story is meant to stand for Joe, who in turn is in some way representative of women everywhere. It isn’t that beauty is at the center of Joe’s story, although she’s portrayed as having no trouble lining up legions of male lovers. Nor is Joe shown as some kind of girl-power icon for women everywhere to emulate, a proponent of sisterhood, being a loner (when not having sex with one of her many partners) and, ultimately, an outcast.

But Joe is in command of, and for the most part uniquely comfortable with, her sexuality – that aforementioned “filthy, filthy lust" that the support group tries to beat out of her. I think this quality – in the metaphor of the ash tree – is what makes her “beautiful,” what makes the other trees (possibly male and female) jealous, what makes them laugh at the indignity of her having dabbled in something dirty and shameful. (I also think this has something to do with the woman rolling around in the coal – she’s specifically shown smearing a black substance onto her naked skin, not unlike the ash tree who’s had its “fingers in the ash.”)

Regarding the movie's discussions about women, there’s a brief monologue of Seligman’s that I feel is a bit too pedagogical, about how Joe has suffered in her life not because she loves sex, but because she loves sex and is also a woman. Seligman claims that, if you told a story about a man who had lived the life Joe had, most people wouldn’t blink an eye. He says this is especially true of her making the difficult decision to abandon motherhood in order to live out her true nature. (The decision to shrug off motherhood does not come easy to Joe, even though some viewers might expect this of someone living such a libertine lifestyle. Earlier in the story, Joe is shown crying at her son’s crib. It's Christmas; it's also the night that Joe knows she will go to the sadist, and Jerôme will make good on his threat to leave with Marcel if she does. Later Joe reveals that, despite having no contact with her son, she deposits a large sum of money into his account, anonymously, every month like clockwork.) 

In her time at Seligman’s flat, Joe only demonstrates intense emotion at one moment – after she reveals that she hasn’t seen Marcel since the day Jerôme took him away, Joe hurls her cup of tea at the wall, leaving a pistol-shaped stain that will later provide a segue for the last chapter of her story. After this outburst Joe says, with pain, that love is a lie – a sentiment Seligman points out is in conflict with the strong emotion she has just displayed when talking about her son.

This declaration that all forms of love, romantic and maternal, are "a lie" is a holdover from Joe’s teenage years, when she and her friend B. (from the train prowl) formed a group of girls called the Little Flock whose mission was to basically pull a “Samantha” from “Sex and the City” (not that SatC exists in this removed-from-time, never-specified but always photogenically autumnal European town; my guess is that the town is supposed to be vaguely somewhere in England, but I only guess this because Joe’s payment to Marcel’s bank account is in “pounds”) and have sex “like a man,” without love or guilt, never sleeping with any specific man more than once. Of course, predictably, both B. and – much later in life – Joe ultimately fall prey to Cupid’s arrows.

The Catholic-church-flavored Little Flock meetings, with their obscene Latin chants and one girl listlessly playing “the Devil’s chord” on an organ, are one of the less plausible inventions of the film, although, as Joe says to Seligman, her audience and the stand-in for Lars’s audience, “Who’s telling the story here?” She asks if Seligman will enjoy the story more when it has a bit of sensationalism to it, one too many incredible but novelistic coincidences, certain individuals appearing again and again like a leitmotif in a piece of music, and he grudgingly admits that yes, she’s right.

At one of the Little Flock meetings, during which each girl stands before the group and confesses – but without shame – their sexual exploits, B. admits that she has seen a nice bloke named Alex again. Joe, sitting at the front of the audience, chastises B. for this violation of the club’s credo, at which point B., appearing shaken and surprised at herself, approaches Joe to say that Joe doesn’t know everything about sex. B. whispers to Joe: “The secret to sex… is love.” Joe looks down in something like shame; it’s as if, on some prescient level, she knows there’s truth to what B. says.

And yet years later, when Joe falls in love with Jerôme (he is her leitmotif, appearing again and again in her life like a pattern, first as just some neighborhood guy with nice rough hands whom she picks to take her virginity, then as the man who hires her for an office job while filling in for his ailing uncle; she runs across him yet again when he returns to their town, having previously run off and married his uncle’s secretary), and they finally have the chance to consummate their passion for each other after years of mutual thwarted longing – this is when Joe abruptly, and with no ready explanation, loses all sexual sensation, and becomes utterly unable to have an orgasm, an event she describes to Seligman as “the worst thing that’s happened in my life.”

To return to the theme of trees, there’s one more story that Joe’s father loved to tell during their walks through the woods, in winter when the leaves had all gone. He directed young Joe’s attention to the now-bare branches – some twisted, all of them striving to bring their leaves toward the light – and told her that “in winter, you can see the souls of the trees.” They joke about which trees look like people they know, and during one later walk her father excitedly leads her to what he has decided is his “soul tree.” Much later in the story – far along into Volume II – Joe finds her soul tree, and the moment is one of the best in the entire film, a powerful and haunting image that I’m loth to describe in too much detail for fear of spoiling it for you.

The Trick of Prettiness

This isn't a theme per se, but something I noticed when watching "Nymphomaniac" is the possibly sly (assuming it's premeditated, and since it's Lars it probably is) way that Lars will use the prettiest of scenes (idyllic, vaguely unspecified European locations where it's ever autumn; rooms with amber glows worthy of some Dutch Masters painting), the loveliest of heartstring-pulling orchestral scores, the most unimpeachably vaunted of actors, some with international clout (Charlotte Gainsbourg is French cinematic royalty; similarly, Catherine Deneuve was Björk's factory-worker pal in "Dancer in the Dark") all to almost distract you from his controversial or objectionable material or manipulative methods. Or, if not to distract you – to lend credence to what he is doing. To make you think: "This can't be a bad movie; look how pretty it is, look who's in it, look at these practically Hallmark-card scenes with Joe's dad and the trees." 

Theater Version vs. Director’s Cut

As a writer and a Lars von Trier fan, watching the longer “director’s cut” version – after having first watched the version that made it into some theaters, for the intrepid souls who dared to see one or both volumes that way – felt like a wonderful gift. I loved not only getting to see “bonus” material that had sprung from Lars’s imagination, especially while creating what seems to me like such a personal movie for him; but also thinking about what got cut, and why.

It’s true that, in the director’s cut, quite a few scenes drag on longer than they should, with bits of less-than-scintillating dialogue or digressions that border on the mundane. But many other scenes were likely cut – and an entire episode of Joe’s life omitted completely – due to the sheer outrageousness of their graphic or profane content. The biggie, of course, is the prolonged and agonizingly realistic-seeming scene in which Joe performs an abortion on herself; having refused to play along with a counselor during a mandatory “Are you sure?” session, and being eager to not have this life inside her, Joe takes a medical implement she inherited from her doctor father, and applies some of the rudimentary training she got while briefly attending medical school in her earlier years, and performs the procedure herself, lying on her kitchen floor.

It’s a nearly impossible scene to watch, and one that left me – as someone who has struggled with infertility for nearly three years – sobbing afterward, not so much for Joe as simply due to the brashly confrontational nature of the scene, which even shows the evicted fetus pulsing with life for a few moments on Joe's kitchen floor. Later Seligman says, as if speaking not to Joe but to Lars himself, that the story will do damage to women who need or want abortions, that it will scare them away from what might be the best option for them in their particular lives. Joe shrugs and compares it to meat-eaters not wanting to know the details of how their food is slaughtered.

Here Lars is once again using Joe to voice his less pleasant views, and it was the right decision to not include this discussion in the final cut – although the abortion scene, to my mind, could have, and should have, stayed. In the (cut) theater version, too many of the scenes that come after where this scene should be feel choppy and lacking the proper dimension; watching the director’s cut, you’re better able to understand the gravity behind some of Joe’s seemingly abrupt or even uncharacteristic decisions – namely, her decision to earnestly try to “cure” herself of her nymphomania, fearing it is in fact ruining her life.

I also wish the theater version had included a cut scene in which Joe swears off masochism, throwing her self-made (under the knot-happy sadist’s tutelage) cat o’ nine tails into the river. It’s after this moment (in the full, uncut version) that Joe finds the man who hooks her up with two thugs to form her own little “debt-collection” franchise – a dark turn in her life, but one that nevertheless represented a reclaiming of her power. No longer would she answer to “Fido,” the sadist’s demeaning nickname for her, written on the props (a riding crop, the cat o’ nine tails) he uses on her and keeps in a cabinet at his lair, and no longer would she chant disempowering mantras with the other sad, cowed souls at the sex-addicts club. From this point on, when a (male) character is shown being whipped, in the course of Joe's "debt collecting" (i.e., extortion) assignments – it’s Joe who is doing the whipping, using some of her "more specialized skills" learned from the sadist, even repeating a phrase the sadist uttered during her very first session with him when she screamed before he had actually hit her. 

This power dynamic only turns back around when we learn what happened on the night Seligman found Joe beaten in the alley near his flat. But to share too many details of this scene would be to reveal spoilers of a nature that I truly feel would rob you of the full experience of watching this movie.

A Note About Casting

I’m always simultaneously amused and grateful that, despite his reputation for creating controversial and sometimes angering fare, Lars never seems to have trouble drumming up A-list and household-name actors to appear in his work, and this movie’s no different. Some of the choices for this one might look surprising on paper: Shia LaBeouf as a “no, seriously, you can take him seriously” tragic/romantic love interest? The divine goddess Uma Thurman as an aggrieved wife and mother spurned for a mousy little pipsqueak? Christian Slater as a kindly éminence grise, a learned and loving father who helps to emotionally anchor the movie, even as he unravels during his prolonged dying-a-slow-death scenes at the hospital? But in every case except perhaps one, and forgiving a couple of jarring moments in which celebrity interfered with my suspension of disbelief during a scene, it all somehow works.

Charlotte Gainsbourg embodies Joe in her slightly older years with a humanity and goodness that encourages you to almost automatically pardon her character for even the most outrageous lapses in moral judgment. Her poised voice, of softly indeterminate accent in the movie, lends a gravitas and credibility to Joe's story that helps to somewhat redeem Joe. Charlotte has the ability to draw the skeptical viewer back into the story after the latest episode of reprehensible behavior; her mere voice and presence have an ameliorating effect. I would say some sort of innate goodness in Charlotte Gainsbourg even hints at the very sort of guilt the viewer, who in all likelihood (given that this is a European "art film") comes from the sin-oriented "Western church" (as opposed to the more joy-abiding "Eastern church," a concept explored during another one of Seligman's digressions), would like to sense in Joe. In other words: Charlotte somehow manages to make it all OK.

Stacy Martin, as the younger Joe (teenage to younger-adult years), not a household name like the others mentioned below (and like Charlotte Gainsbourg in France) but more than worthy of discussion here (she portrays Joe in more than half of the flashback sequences), is beguiling to watch as the different facets of Joe’s complex personality play over her – the slutty minx who coaxes a loyal husband (on his way home to try and make a baby with his wife) to “release his load” while on the train adventure with B.; the slow-talking, dreamy, weirdo job applicant so ill-suited to the workaday world that she claims during an interview she hadn’t realized she would need “skills” to work in an office; the sensitive creature who seems to register every shift in the behavior and moods of the people around her.

Also not a household name, in the U.S. at least, is Lars von Trier film regular
Stellan Skarsgård, who plays Seligman with all the nuance required for the role, by turns seeming almost sociopathically attuned to books instead of people, morbidly (but chastely) curious about the battered Joe recuperating in his guest bed, even jolly when caught in a humorous reverie about some notion or other that Joe has expressed; these reveries are among the many playful visual illustrations that punctuate and help break up this indulgently long movie. There's a transformation in Seligman that slowly occurs throughout the movie, the jovial eunuch growing progressively disillusioned as his excuses for Joe's behavior run dry, a darkness settling over him.

Again, Shia LaBeouf surprised and impressed me; his portrayal of Jerôme, Joe’s first lover, boss, and eventual father of their child, morphs to fit whichever version of the character is required for a certain scene, be it neighborhood wife-beater-wearing, tough-talking guy who drives a moped (but isn’t entirely sure how to fix it when something simple goes wrong), or greased-hair poseur appropriating his sick uncle’s position at a paper-products company and pretending the office is his, or romantic hero who appears in a golden halo during one of Joe’s many walks in the woods to take her into his arms and bring her home and make love to her, or jealous lover punching the wall and threatening to take their son away from Joe forever. Somehow, incredibly – Shia is all of these things, in just the right dose, at the right time.

Christian Slater, too, surprised me in his role of Joe's adored father, "the nice one" among Joe's parents (her "cold" mother is pretty much only shown either playing Solitaire with her back turned to the camera/Joe, or standing wordless and stoic next to Joe in the hospital room after her husband/Joe's father has died). Having grown up seeing Christian in a run of Hollywood blockbusters, for me he has one of those faces and voices many of us instantly recognize, the kind of face and voice that seem difficult to subsume into the soul of a fictional character to the point of making the audience believe, "I am seeing and hearing this character," instead of, "That's Christian Slater." But I believed in his character from the moment he was first shown, his face reverently upturned with eyes closed to feel the wind sifting through his beloved leaves, young Joe at his side doing the same. It helps that he dons a slight accent
also of indeterminate origin, just "vaguely European" – that helps cloak his "young Jack Nicholson/erstwhile Tiger Beat pin-up" persona.

Props also to Uma Thurman, who was almost unrecognizable to me at first when she made her appearance, tentative and desperate, with her three little boys, hiding in the stairwell of Joe's apartment building after her husband has left them for Joe. This unrecognizability wasn't due to anything as superficial as a wig or prosthetic schnoz, but instead due to what seemed to me her whole-hearted thrusting of herself into the role of crazed-with-grief, spurned wife and newly helpless mother. She is the "Mrs. H." of one of the chapter titles, the one who predicts, with what seems to be a uniquely feminine intuition, that Joe will suffer from loneliness later in life, when the long line of lovers stop coming by. The "Mrs. H." chapter/confrontation scene is prolonged, in Lars's typically sadistic style, and hard to watch; we see this otherwise confident and strong woman unravel, hear her say crazy things to her kids in the heat of the moment that a wiser part of her regrets saying right away, and finally watch her just scream in the stairwell, bowed by a pain so deep that there are no more hostile words, for Joe or for Mr. H., only pain.

You'll glimpse a few other actors whose faces are well-known
– most notably a perhaps under-utilized Willem Dafoe, who plays Joe's dubious employer, the one who sets her up with two thugs so she can begin her career as a freelance "debt collector" – but the ones above are by far the standouts for me. 

There were only
a handful of moments when celebrity made it hard for me to suspend my disbelief. For example, when Stacy Martin, as younger-adult Joe, is at her father's deathbed, and Christian Slater, who appears to have aged rather well in real life, doesn't seem old enough to be her sickly, dying father despite a tinge of graying stubble
– in fact, he appears to be the same approximate age as her lovers. And there was a time or two when Uma Thurman's star power inevitably shone through her role and I got distracted by thinking, "That's Uma Thurman." Also, the transition from Stacy Martin as Joe to Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe is perhaps a notch or two short of seamless, since the actresses, despite being rough physical approximations of each other  – slim, brunette, Caucasian, etc.  – have very different "vibes," with Stacy's Joe more coquettish and Charlotte's Joe more existentially conflicted and at times repentant/guilt-ridden. But overwhelmingly, the main actors did a fantastic job of not so much disappearing into but embodying and energizing their characters.

In other words, Lars might be a mean director,
but whatever he's doing it works. In this film, at least.

Necessary Spoilers/Triggers

You should not watch this film if you don't wish to see the following: 
  • Graphic, frank depictions of sex. Full-frontal nudity, male and female. Penetration of all stripes (vaginal, anal, oral). Prolonged scenes of sado-masochism, including instances in which the sadist whips or hits Joe hard enough to break her skin and cause it to bleed.
  • Scenes involving children's innocent discovery of their sexuality, including Seligman's mention of studies showing fetuses touching their genitals inside the womb (this is in the director's cut only, perhaps a wise edit). A scene showing young Joe lying in a field alone on a school trip and having her first orgasm, a spontaneous (zero sexual contact; she's just lying there) orgasm, complete with a vision of two obscure-to-her religious figures (i.e., add a dash of blasphemy on top of a scene in which a [fully clothed] child is having a rapturous moment described, in Joe's narration, as her first orgasm). The spontaneous-orgasm scene is played as a parallel to the story of the Immaculate Conception, an almost divinely inflicted incidence of sexuality in a person too innocent to even know what's going on. In addition to a few other mostly comical and innocent scenes along these sexual-discovery lines (such as an image of a jiggling rope, as Joe talks about how she loved to climb the rope in gym glass, in search of "the sensation"), one of the very first things Joe says to Seligman, in "starting at the beginning," is that she "discovered [her] cunt" as a toddler.
  • A scene in which Joe takes pity on a pedophile – a man who has never acted on what the movie portrays as his inborn sickness, a sin he was born with and for which, Joe deems, he is therefore not at fault – and rewards him for his abstinence with a blow job.
  • Digressions about race and sex, including a brief slide show featuring the cocks of different races, and Joe's statement that "Any woman who claims that the thought of having sex with a Negro doesn't turn her on is lying;" the ever- politically correct Seligman (rightfully) chastises Joe for using this term, but Joe shrugs and insists that she's only being frank and honest, another case in which she is clearly a stand-in for Lars.
  • In the director's cut only: a remarkably graphic, realistic-seeming, and prolonged scene in which Joe performs an abortion on herself, in her kitchen, without anaesthetic. (You will be completely spared this episode if you watch the theater version only; however, I feel its omission leaves the theater version feeling oddly choppy and some of Joe's later decisions seeming a bit abrupt or inexplicable, in the manner of a missing limb that leaves the nerves tingling, an absence that somehow makes itself felt.)
  • Bodily fluids, some of which are secreted or excreted at what might appear to be inappropriate moments. Most notably: the scene in which Joe, portrayed as earnestly aggrieved by her father's slow death (to the point of seeking escape by taking strolls around the hospital grounds and fucking willing staff she happens to find here and there), is standing at his deathbed after he has finally passed on, and, as she shamefully narrates for Seligman, "I lubricated." (This is shown: a shot of Joe's thigh underneath her skirt, a drop of lubrication rolling down.) Seligman is quick to point out examples from literature of characters becoming aroused in situations involving death or danger, but present-day Joe is undeterred in finding this detail from her past shameful.

    Also: a scene in which Joe's father, who has been briefly sedated amid the throes of dementia, has soiled himself, and hospital staff are summoned to flip him over and clean the mess from the floor, the bed, and his bare backside. And a scene near the end, whose details I won't spoil here, in which one character pisses on another in a gesture of "Fuck you."
  • Hard-to-watch scenes of appalling moral paucity in the story's purported heroine: Joe as seemingly blasé homewrecker (see the aforementioned chapter "Mrs. H."); the man riding the train home in order to procreate with his child-craving wife, of whose "load" Joe relieves with a blow job, seemingly purely out of her selfish desire to win the bag of candy during the game with B.

    Each of these Joe confesses in a manner (and in Charlotte Gainsbourg's eloquently grounded voice) that leads the viewer to believe she regrets these episodes in retrospect even though she shrugged them off (or appeared to) at the time, and each of these Seligman sympathetically counters with a ready excuse for Joe: he believes her story on the train was nothing more than a tale of "youthful hubris;" of a scene in which Joe rolls a pair of dice to determine what kind of telephone response she will grant in return to each of her lovers' many voice messages (by this point in the story she has so many lovers she can't keep them all straight), Seligman says, "That must have been very stressful."
  • Again, the one thing I will not spoil here is the ending (it, too, is better if you watch the director's cut; a key element is left unexplained if you watch the theater version only). All I will say is that it is stunning, and perfect, and more happens in a couple of seconds than perhaps all the rest of the scenes in this long, long movie combined. You will guess that something bad is coming by Lars's sadistic setting up of Joe for new depths of pain, and you will think you know what's coming, but (in my case, at least) you will be wrong, and you will be glad you were wrong. And you will be left devastated.

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