Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Friday, July 31, 2015

[Genophobia] Nymphomaniac (2013)

With NYMPHOMANIAC, writer-director Lars Van Trier draws to a close his so-called Depression
Poster Image
Trilogy—an unofficial trilogy, as they share common themes, traits and leading ladies, but do not share characters or a storyline. Unlike the first two entries, ANTICHRIST (2009) and MELANCHOLIA (2011), this film was such an epic endeavor that for distribution, it had to be broken into two volumes. However, I viewed them back to back as a single film, and will be covering them as such. And I will warn you now, there will be spoilers.

One winter night, aging bachelor Seligman finds a woman, Joe, beaten and semi-conscious in an alleyway.  She refuses medical assistance and doesn't want the police involved.  When asked what she does want, she admits that a cup of tea would be nice.  Seligman helps her to his house, tucks her into bed, tends to her wounds, and then offers her the tea.  Finally, he asks Joe what had happened to her to leave her in such a state.  She warns him that it is a long story, and that in order for him to fully understand, she will have to start at the beginning.

"I discovered my c*nt as a two year old..." 

Which is a pretty jarring beginning to any story, but at least she's not burying the lead.  Over the course of the 4-hour combined running time, Joe relates her life as the titular nymphomaniac (refusing to call herself something so tiresome as a sex addict), from her earliest sexual stirrings as a child right up to the brutal confrontation that lead to her arrival in Seligman's home.  She has thousands of partners, a relative few of which that we are privileged to.  The only one who returns with any regularity is Jerome, Joe's original lover, who pops up often enough and at such opportune times that even Seligman begins to question the authenticity of her tale.

NYMPHOMANIAC - Young Joe Poster Image
Young Joe
When Jerome takes Joe's virginity, he does so in a most unsavory way.  He offers three vaginal thrusts in a standard missionary position, then rolls her over and gives five anal thrusts to finish.  With each pump, a numerical count appears on screen like a particularly twisted Sesame Street segment.  Seligman, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything, exclaims that 3 and 5 are both Fibonacci numbers.

All of these elements are ones that will pop up time and time again throughout the film. The sex, obviously, plays a very important part. Mathematical formulae, charts and graphs, and other assorted graphic ephemera will appear onscreen to further illustrate what is happening at any given moment. And Seligman will find a parallel between what Joe is discussing and some seemingly obscure bit of trivia that will connect her to the world at large.

It is this last part that is perhaps the most crucial factor to the story.  Joe is unloading a lifetime of chaos, and Seligman is doing his best to find order within it.  What initially appears to be a random sequence of numbers turns out to be an intricate structure found in everything from nature to computational mathematics. So too are a series of seemingly random sexual encounters not only pieces to a greater whole (Joe as a person), but also somehow connected to the universe (as all things are).  At least, that seems to be the gospel according to Seligman.

Depending on who you ask, it is either poor characterization or very complex characterization that is at play here.  Joe frequently tells Seligman that she is a bad person, and yet elsewhere in the film declares that she loves her lust.  Meanwhile, Seligman is attempting to convince Joe that she is a good person, and yet he frequently finds satanic and unholy connotations in her actions.  They are conflicting their own viewpoints, meaning perhaps they are trying to convince themselves just as hard as they are trying to convince the other.

NYMPHOMANIAC - Seligman Poster Image
Joe is playing the association game, as well, though she's doing it in reverse. Every item in Seligman's sparsely furnished bachelor pad cues up a memory that puts us back into her story, almost to the point of absurdity. A mirror, a fork, a spilled bit of tea...each of these leads us right back into her story at the appropriate place. It reminds me of nothing so much as THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995), except that the audience is in on the gag the whole time.

If coincidence doesn't make you question the full validity of Joe's tale, perhaps her association game will. It is possible that she is lying, at least in some aspects of her storytelling.  It is possible that she has lived enough of a life that any one thing can remind her of another—certainly we could all do the same if we were so inclined.  It is also possible, though, that this was merely a rather cutesy narrative device that wore a little thin over time.  Regardless of whether or not Joe is an unreliable narrator, the advice she offers Seligman is sound: "Which way do you think that you would get the most out of my story?  By believing in it or by not believing in it?"  And so we go along with Joe's story, believing at least the general gist of what she tells us, for fear of walking away from the whole thing empty.

When Jerome enters into the story for the second time, it is years after he has so crudely taken Joe's virginity.  No longer a mechanic, he is now a success in the printing industry and hires Joe on as his assistant.  She is not qualified for the position, but he has brought her on board in hopes of bedding her once again.  Joe refuses, though, for reasons that not even she fully understands.  She later comes to realize that it is because she has genuine feelings for the man, an "idiotic love" that makes her feel humiliated (as her whole life thus far has been spent rebelling against the very notion).  When she is finally ready to accept her feelings and admit them to Jerome, it is too late; he has abandoned the company and run off with his secretary.

NYMPHOMANIAC - Jerome Poster Image
Jerome's third appearance in the story comes on the heels of her father's death, and he and Joe quickly land in bed with one another.  Joe whispers to Jerome what every man in the heat of passion yearns to hear—"Fill all my holes"—but follows it up with the one thing that every man in the heat of passion is afraid of hearing—"I can't feel anything!".  To Jerome's credit, this isn't a condemnation of his ability as a lover—indeed, his technique has definitely improved over the years—but it is her mind that is shutting down her body because of her betrayal.  Because this was not an encounter based on lust, but rather one based on emotion (the "holes" that she refers to surely encompasses the empty spots in her soul, as well), her body reacts violently, stealing the sexual sensation that she has been chasing her whole life.  Without an orgasm, who is she?

Despite this sexual handicap—in fact, quite likely, because of it—Joe and Jerome do manage to find happiness together.  They live together in "secure and restful domestic comfort", very much like husband and wife.  Joe even finds herself with child, and her son Marcel (delivered via Cesarean section, so as not to damage her precious vagina) is born.  But as time wears on, and Jerome is no longer able to maintain the sexual stamina that Joe requires (she is still chasing the ghost of the orgasm, at the very least), he grants Joe permission to seek further sexual encounters outside of the makeshift marriage.  This is the beginning of the dissolution of the family unit, which she completely eradicates later by leaving their young child home alone so that she can be tied up and beaten with a wet horse bridle by the misogynistic K, an S&M kingpin who has bored housewives literally lined up outside his door.

When Jerome arrives home to find Marcel unattended, he gives Joe an ultimatum.  She, of course, chooses K, abandoning her family in favor of the returning orgasm.  The fact that her climax is, quite literally, beaten out of her acts as further proof that her body betrayed her because she betrayed her mind. Her orgasm returns only after exchanging a loving relationship for her "relationship" with K, which is just about as far away from love as one can imagine.

It's conceivable that Joe's interest in bondage is tied in with the memory of her father, who had to be restrained in his hospital bed towards the end of his life for his own protection. Similarly, it's conceivable that her interest in bondage leads directly into the next major phase of her life, becoming something of hired muscle for unscrupulous debt collector L. Utilizing what she learned from her time with K, along with psychological sex games that she picked up along the way, it turns out that she's quite good at convincing these debtors to pay up.

Herein lies my only serious qualm with the film as a whole. Joe's transformation into what amounts
NYMPHOMANIAC - Joe Poster Image
to a criminal goon seems far too sudden, and it isn't played to great effect.  Van Trier seems to be playing with genre conventions in this segment, and it would have played more effectively for me if he had really gone for it, briefly transforming the movie into a Lady in Leather exploitation throwback (think Quentin Tarantino's homage film KILL BILL). Instead, it comes across simultaneously as forced and underplayed.

In time, L convinces Joe that she should start looking for a successor. The young P is chosen for her, not at random, but because the girl possesses qualities that will make her susceptible to manipulation. Joe takes P under her wing in a nearly-motherly way, but once P reaches the "age of majority" (read: age of consent), the two become lovers.

The May-December lesbian romance in itself isn't enough to raise many eyebrows, but that the relationship went from familial to familiar does pose some concerns.  Being one who always looks for the root cause of things—in this case, Joe's nymphomania—I was certain that this was a clue to a deeper truth that would be revealed by the finale of the film; namely that Joe's father had sexually abused her, kicking off his daughter's lifelong sexual obsession.  Yet, in the end, this assumption proved incorrect. We are given no reason to believe that Joe ever suffered any such abuse, or that her father was anything but the kind and gentle man that he appears to be. There is no root cause to Joe's nymphomania. It just is, and always has been.

P does indeed enter the business, and is well on her way to becoming Joe's successor.  On her very first job without Joe's assistance, the debtor in question turns out to be a familiar character. When P knocks on the door, it is yet another extraordinary coincidence that Jerome answers.

Possibly Jerome inadvertently learns of P's connection to Joe, and sees a chance to hurt his former flame. Perhaps Jerome merely sees something of Joe inside of P, stoking a fire that still burns in his heart. Or, perhaps it is merely another epic coincidence. Regardless of the reason, Joe discovers that P and Jerome have been sleeping together, and feels undeniably betrayed. In one fell swoop, she has lost two lovers, and she decides to take matters into her own hands.

With gun in hand, Joe waits in the alley for P and Jerome to pass through. When they do, Joe aims the pistol at Jerome's head and pulls the trigger...but nothing happens, as she has forgotten to rack the gun.  Jerome, in turn, waits calmly for Joe to put the gun away and then proceeds to beat the holy hell out of her, while P watches with a smirk. Then, in the ultimate F.U., Jerome makes Joe watch as he lays P down and performs his famous Fibonacci Frig on her (3+5).  To seal the deal, P urinates on Joe, and she and Jerome leave together, which leads us right back to the beginning of the film.

Joe has likely tried to tell her life story to other men before, but their physical arousal caused by her tales would almost inevitably lead to sex. This is why Seligman has been her perfect and ideal confidante—he is a virgin, and considers himself wholly asexual.  (If Seinfeld science is to be believed—and I have no reason to think otherwise—his lack of sexual preoccupation is responsible for his seemingly endless knowledge.). Sure, he admits, he's somewhat sorry that he has never had sex, but this is based solely on intellectual curiosity and not on lust.  Now that Joe has managed to get through her entire story for the first time without the usual physical interruption, her soul has been cleansed, and her sins have been purged.  As the sun rises, she vows to make changes in her life and defeat the addiction that has ruled her life for so long.  Seligman turns off the lights and Joe settles down for sleep, the happy ending that this movie has been barreling towards the entire time.

But Seligman's downfall is that he is entirely too curious.  Without his trousers, flaccid penis in hand, he creeps through the darkness and crawls into bed with the sleeping Joe.  He tries to enter her, but Joe awakens and protests.  His argument likely seems valid—"But you've fucked thousands of men,"—but it is precisely the wrong thing for him to say.  She has fucked thousands of men, but Seligman was supposed to be different.  He was supposed to be the one that she didn't have to fuck.  He was, in her own words, her "new, maybe first, friend", and his actions here prove to be just one more betrayal in a night full of betrayals.  She goes for her pistol, only this time, she remembers to rack the gun.

It's a tragic ending for both of our protagonists, and one that presents itself to much spirited debate online.  Some say that Seligman attempted to rape her, while others say that it hardly constitutes as rape.  Some say that Joe was justified in the shooting, while others say that it was a violent overreaction. Some paint Joe in the role of the victim, while others are quick to point out that she had attempted to murder a man in cold blood only a few hours before. Where you lie on the spectrum is a personal matter, but I have to point out that even good people can do bad things, and even bad people can be victims. This is just one of many scenes that is meant to be debated, with yourself and with others.

Another scene ripe for the 'Is It Rape?' debate happens early in the film, where teenage Joe and her lusty friend B are holding a contest on a train to see who can seduce the most men before arriving at their destination. Joe sets her sights on a family man, who stoically rebukes her advances. She persists, unbuckles his belt, and proceeds to perform fellatio on him despite his protests. Although he doesn't physically fight her off, he does persistently tell her no and practically begs her to stop.  If no means no in all cases, then this should indeed be classified as rape, but there are many who challenge this.

These two instances are purposefully controversial, and are purposefully mirror images of one another in order to get people talking. Seligman himself, in one of his final dialogues, explains the hypocrisy of gender bias—how a man who was as addicted to sex as Joe wouldn't face nearly the same social stigma, etc. It's a true statement, but so blatantly spelling it out to the audience takes away a bit of the artistry that was otherwise put into the film.

Van Trier assembled quite a varied cast for this outing, and for the most part, they all knock it out of the park. Stellan Skarsgard was great as the knowledgeable Seligman, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (star of the other two entries in the Depression Trilogy, as well) was rock solid as the older version of Joe.  Newcomer Stacy Martin as young Joe was quite fetching, though the sudden transition from young to old after only a three-year gap in the story was a bit difficult to take in.

Even Shia LeBeouf as secondary leading man Jerome did a decent job, though his English accent was occasionally shaky. He gets a lot of heat these days, but he's a serviceable enough actor. His recent forays into Life-As-Performance-Art tomfoolery have put a real strain on his career, though, and it is sometimes difficult to look past.

The surprise performance came from Christian Slater, who has always been a good actor but hasn't
NYMPHOMANIAC - Joe's Father Poster Image
Joe's Father
had a lot of luck with roles since entering adulthood.  His portrayal of Joe's father was sad and sensitive, and he made a relatively small role quite memorable for it being one of the few genuinely likable characters in the film.

Other celebrities fill out the smaller roles, most of their character's known only by initials (an affectation that Joe likely picked up in her sex addicts support group): Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, Hugo Speer and Uma Thurman all make appearances, among others.

It's always a bit unnerving when you see explicit sex in a movie with real, mainstream actors. Yes, many familiar faces might have a little softcore in their past, or a little erotic thriller in their future, but visible penetration is taking things to a whole new level. This goes beyond CALIGULA—although the sex in that film was even more explicit, the principal players never seemed to be involved in the XXX action. This lands more squarely in BROWN BUNNY territory (although that entire film hinged entirely on a single, unsimulated blowjob scene—the only scene that pretty much anybody bothered to watch).  Here, the key actors do appear to be partaking in one another, though according to the credits, these scenes were performed with body doubles, prosthetics, and special effects.  That may be so, but it has to be said that the shots were pretty convincing.

With the abundance of nipples, vaginas, penises both flaccid and erect, the occasional winking anus, and one impressive shot of semen being spat from a mouth, it is difficult to believe that what I watched was the edited version. This cut was made with the blessing of, but not the assistance of, Van Trier, whose official director's cut contains nearly 90 additional minutes of footage between the two films. The director's cuts were released to home video in November 2014, and have since been added to Netflix, and I will certainly be looking into them when I have the opportunity, if for no other reason than sheer curiosity of the filmmaker's original vision. I imagine that there is not only scads more sex in the extended version, but character development as well, that will help tie together some of the plot beats a little more soundly.

It has been said elsewhere that NYMPHOMANIAC is not actually about sex at all, that it is actually about alienation, isolation, and the human condition. I say that a movie called NYMPHOMANIAC that features actual insertion shots is bound to be about sex, at least a little bit. It may be set dressing for a deeper meaning, but there's far too much dressing to deny its existence and its importance to the story.  That Van Trier has made a sex film out of an art film—or an art film out of a sex film—is undeniable. However, as with all things, whether or not it is any good is up for debate.  Some will call it pretentious, but pretentiousness is like art itself: it is all in the eye of the beholder, and where you see one, someone else will inevitably see the other.

Regardless of which side of the fence they land on, many of the more "upper crust" critics have gone on record stating that the sex scenes are not sexy—they wouldn't want to be associated with erotica, after all—but those critics are just playing coy. The truth is, some sex scenes you are likely to find sexy, while others you are likely to find repulsive. It all depends on what type of porn you watch—unless you're one of these people who claim to not like porn, to which I say: pornography is ice cream; whether you like vanilla or rocky road, there's a flavor for everyone. Some people just partake more often than others. And you know what we call those people?

Fat and happy.


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