Nymphomania Vol. I and Vol. II, in many ways, is not so different from other blockbuster Hollywood films today. There is sex, there is the glorious reveal of private body parts, the fetishization and the objectification by the protagonist of the opposite sex. Yet, unlike most of these films, the private body parts being revealed belong to men, and the protagonist doing the fetishizing and objectifying is a woman. The film even fails the famous Bechdel test for equal female representation, not because there aren’t numerous conversations between two women, but because all these women talk about is their desire for men and how many they can possibly sleep with. While many films seek to embarrass the misogyny right out of Hollywood, Nymphomaniac capitulates on it, inverts it, and offers a radical new vision of women, men and sexuality.
The film’s narrative begins in the grime of a back alley, in the bare, emotionless home of Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), an older bachelor whose life is bereft of color, energy or really life of any kind. He finds Joe, played brutally and brilliantly by Charlotte Gainsbourg, beaten and left unconscious in the street. The former describes himself as an asexual; the latter is a clinically diagnosed nymphomaniac. The former obsesses over books, the latter over penises. As Joe begins to tell her story, the two weave their binary perspectives into a convoluted, often twisted, perspective on the world. For every coarse sexual innuendo Joe confesses to, Seligman finds an equivalent in the beauty of literature and history. For every man Joe sleeps with, Seligman has a book ready, or a quote from a character. Joe’s story is harsh, bawdy, philosophical and gruesome. She is simultaneously self-effacing and unapologetic. Seligman’s home is so utterly bereft of sex, indeed of any passion of any sort, that Joe’s story is muted, it is past, it is stylized and retold and fabricated. But the harshness of its reality, and the mirror it holds to our own humanity, as audience members, at times had the audience visibly cringing.
One of the most visually stunning and politically subversive scenes in the film is when Seligman turns on an organ prelude by Bach, Joe describes how three of her lovers play the same roles in her life as each of the three voices in the piece. In a downright sacrilegious montage, Joe describes each lover, how they made love, and how they form the bass, the chords and the flourishes of her sex life. This, more than any scene, contained the questions and the critical perspective of the film, transforming Joe’s bawdy sexual relationships into the same sort of beautiful rendering that a piece of sacred music can have. It elevated to that point that had been portrayed as largely a base form of human interaction to the godlike. It made sex high art.
Will we dare to make sex a part of our art culture, in a real, blatant way? Can we actually take the step between Ginsberg and the Virgin Mary? These are the questions Lars Von Trier asks us. This film is as much about sex as it is about itself. The meta-levels of the film allow Seligman’s interjections into Joe’s story shape the narrative itself, so much so that, in a phrase that echoes the recently popular film Life of Pi, Joe asks “Which way do you think you’ll get satisfaction from the story, by believing it, or not believing it?” This film takes a step away from traditional narrative filmmaking, while taking a step towards the “art” film, while in many ways reverting through time to the traditional formula of the 20th century novel. It blurs the lines between Bach and Rammstein (a heavy metal band whose song “Fuhre Mich” is featured in the first scene of the film), between poetry and the whispers shared between lovers, the image of a woman’s body being bathed and a man defecating on himself, the death of the body and the ‘little deaths’ of a woman’s orgasm. The film asks us if we are prepared to give up all the archaic notions of sexuality that still dominate our gender norms and our cultural structure, and allow ourselves to learn about life from the nymphomaniac. Can the worlds of base, bawdy sex and of ‘high’ art seam together? By making this film, Von Trier makes it so.