“Lord suffering fuck I can’t believe there are assholes here trying quantify this cumstain as art. It’s not. It drags the whole human race down into the sewer. Western civilization starting shitting blood the day this p.o.s. was released and now it’s going to die of ass cancer. If you enjoy this movie it’s because you’re so fucken broken inside that shock and horror are the only things left to you. You’re already dead on the inside so why not complete the package and kill yourself.”
The above review of Nymphomaniac (2014), posted on The Pirate Bay by AlienRapist2, coolly raises the question of what art should be. And there’s a tendency— amongst Russian novelists and strawmen I construct to refute— to say art must be moral. But the mature age student in you asks, “Why?”, “Whose morals?”, and “In my experience…”. Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier has made a career of contradicting popular morality and his latest film, Nymphomaniac, might be his most confrontational. In two volumes, eight chapters, and four and half hours (five if you’ve got the uncensored version), Von Trier was to follow the life and experiences of a sex addict.
As a director, Von Trier is fascinating partially because of the elaborate mythology he entertains. He’s deathly afraid of flying, so travels by boat, or not at all. He’s been banned from Cannes due to an interview he gave comparing himself to a Nazi. His production house, Zentropa, was the first mainstream company to produce hardcore pornography, which he created for female audiences. His films disproportionately deal with the female experience, though it’s the female experience qua Von Trier, and he’s been accused of degrading them. After Dancer in the Dark (2000), Björk refused to make another film, saying, “he needs a female to provide his work soul, and he envies them and hates them for it, so he has to destroy them.” He’s been known to smash chairs in his female actors’ dressing rooms, or strip naked while directing to unsettle them. Nymphomaniac marks Charlotte Gainsbourg’s third collaboration with the director.
The film opens in rain, with the camera’s passage into dark spaces suggesting movement into an orifice. The protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is passed out, covered in bruises. I’m suspicious of the man who saves her. The film’s marketing emphasised that sex and seediness would be everywhere, with one press release even describing the process by which Von Trier digitally imposed porn star genitalia on his actors to increase their size.
The quiet of the opening segues dramatically into Rammstein’s ‘Führe Mich’, which is basically what I expected from the director of Antichrist (2009). Indeed, having seen Gainsbourg sever her clitoris at the climax of that film, I was bracing myself for something awful. After all, Antichrist started with silence, symphony, and slow-motion to lull us before introducing the tragic image of a baby falling from a balcony while his parents had sex. In Nymphomaniac, Von Trier seems to cut the foreplay. But what follows is, incongruously, a sexually charged The Princess Bride (1987). Joe coalesces in bed, drinks— is that tea?— and civilly recounts her story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). She recalls “discovering her cunt” at age two, spoken over a close-up of a naked baby looking down, and I admit feeling distressed here.
Yet Volume I is distinguished not by its horror but rather by its absurd comedy. Each chapter juxtaposes Joe’s heartfelt recollections with Seligman’s banal interruptions, comparing her apparent sexual indiscretions to fishing, mountaineering, or the Western Church. Not to be outdone, Joe introduces meta-metaphors for his metaphors. The screen is divided into thirds, comparing Joe’s memories to Seligman’s interruptions, to Joe’s own interpretations.
The overriding sense of Volume I is of Von Trier aggressively undermining our expectations by giving us a film that both parades and makes light of his grim nihilism. The effect is a tonally jarring work, nine-tenths a comedy, leaving the one-tenth tragedy to misfire. A scene in which she reviews her partners’ genitals, while mug-penis-shots flash across the screen, is hilarious. And when the director swaps to black and white for the “seriousness” of Joe’s father’s death, I can’t help but laugh at the obvious Von Trier-ism.
While it’s undeniable that Von Trier puts Joe through all the tests his (female) protagonists must undergo, there’s warmth in Volume II that’s absent from his previous films. In the first volume, Seligman acts as Von Trier’s proxy, the sympathetic ear for Joe’s torment. In Volume II, he seems to reverse the roles. After all, Joe’s complaints about “society’s morality police… eras[ing] my obscenity… so the bourgeoisie won’t feel sick,” can only remind us of a certain maligned Danish filmmaker. However, it’s questionable how much we sympathise with Lars, even when embodied in Gainsbourg. After Joe-cum-Lars invokes a racial epithet, using the n-word with derision in reference to a failed threesome, it’s Seligman who chastises her, suggesting that political correctness comes from a democratic interest in the powerless. It’s clear we’re meant to side with Joe, but Seligman’s the persuasive one. Don’t worry, keep watching, Von Trier punishes Seligman for being so sympathetic.
If I sound indecisive, I am. My feelings of ambivalence are made worse by the film’s conclusion. After years of being described a misogynist, Nymphomaniac ends with Lars, now Seligman, describing Joe as a resistance figure, claiming that her indiscretions would be anything but had they been acted by a man. I wonder whether this coda justifies the hours of torture that preceded it. The indeterminacy of Von Trier’s depiction of Joe is, however, a possible triumph— each damning action is counterbalanced by a redemptive one. She leaves her kid, but supports him financially. She tries to kill someone, but subconsciously stops herself. We’re left feeling sorry for her, but as an acolyte of Lars’ own philosophy, there are limits to how much we can like her.
But has the film resolved this issue of whether art can be evil? Not especially. It’s a disappointing film, so much so that I don’t even want to defend it. However, you can’t slam Von Trier without a sideways glance at free speech. If his words at Cannes constituted hate speech, is his oeuvre composed of hate art? And should we attack this kind of art with the same impunity? To be called an artwork implies an engaging quality, and does this suggest that hateful art is prejudice at its most insidious? You could now ask, slightly differently, “how might one enjoy problematic things?” The answer here is “mindfully”. To engage with it intellectually allows us to skim off a work’s interesting dimensions, and let the vile sediment sink. Nymphomaniac errs on the side of sediment, and while it’s interesting insofar as it reflects Von Trier’s own developing sensibility, I’m suspicious of its quality and ambivalent about its evil. There’s undoubtedly something of a redemptive moral in the film, but Von Trier makes you share his masochism to get to it.