Monday, 7 April 2014

Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

It’s taken a while to process this movie. It’s not an art-house version of Thanks For Sharing, and neither, thank God, is it a art-house version of the execrable Shame. It’s not a study of sex addiction or nymphomania, and actually is not about sex at all. If you want to see a movie about sex, download something from Kink. You will never see a film about sex in the mainstream cinema. There are penises (erect and flaccid) and vaginas, and what looks like people having sex, but a lot of that is digital compositing. I’m also assuming that the bit where Jamie Bell’s K hits Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe with a glove stuffed with coins is not real, otherwise it would have had to have been one take and Gainsbourg would have been un-filmable for a week while the bruises went down. Nah. Likewise the whipping sequence: that’s either a body-double or a prop.

So what is it about? It’s about someone who behaves in some unconventional ways because she chooses to. We should twig that the whole thing is some kind of half-metaphor when Joe explains that, in her early twenties, she was having sex with ten men a night. Do the math. That many plates can’t be kept spinning. And yet again, she has a recurrent case of one-itis for Shia La Boeuf, as would be understandable in a healthy young woman. One-itis and plate spinning don’t go together. It’s also a satire on men’s need to rationalise women’s sexual behaviour.

Right at the start Joe insists to Stellan Skarsgård's Seligman, that she is a bad person.


Now, let us remember the rules. Women are never bad people, and if they do something that if a man did it would be a bad thing, it’s okay because, you know, patriarchy. Seligman therefore refuses to believe her, and throughout the film attempts to rationalise every bit of her behaviour, even, for heaven’s sake, in terms of Walton’s The Compleat Angler. There’s even a you-go-girl speech towards the end about how she was “exploring” and “demanding her rights”. The bit where Seligman, having heard how the guy who took her virginity by three strokes from the front and five up the rear, after turning her over like a sack of potatoes, explains that 3 and 5 are Fibonnaci numbers, is so truly silly that we must assume that von Trier did it deliberately: “look at how silly this guy has to be to understand what happens to her”. (Either that, or von Trier is truly weird.)

In return for all this listening and attempted understanding, Joe kills Seligman, as right at the end, he attempts a half-hearted rape. In most cases a simple “What the frack do you think you’re doing”, followed by a hefty dose of shaming, would do. Seligman is an old man, and he’s not holding her down. The last time I looked, it wasn’t yet legal or even morally acceptable, even in Denmark, for women to kill men who were attempting to rape them. (Kick them in the nuts, sure, but the legal principle is that the force used in self-defence must be proportionate to the force used by the attacker.) However, I suspect it’s a device to end the movie, which has no other real reason for stopping.

Oh yeah, she’s a bad girl. Prima facie, the scene in the SAA meeting is a little unconvincing: from Joe’s denouncements of the other women in the group, we get the idea that sex addicts are rather pathetic women driven to use sex to fill an emptiness in their lives. This is to set up the contrast with Joe, who likes her desires and urges. As a way of making Joe’s acceptance of her own agency clear, it does the job. She’s the drunk who decides they would rather be drunk than sober and leaves an AA after-meeting coffee session with a little speech to that effect.

I’m not suggesting that von Trier is making any Red Pill points. But he’s a provocateur, and so it’s not surprising that he takes a dissenting view on the morality of his character. He's clearly not speaking about all nymphomaniacs, as Steve McQueen was doing about "all" sex addicts, and that's why von Trier's film is a flawed art movie, whereas McQueen's is propaganda disguised as seriousness.

As a film? Von Trier is a film-maker first and foremost. The stories and characters come afterwards. Of course the plot is silly, just as silly as the idea that a planet would whoosh past Earth and then turn round within three or four days and collide with it.I think it’s better than his last two, especially as he keeps the scissors out of Gainsbourg’s hands (yep, you just winced at that, didn't you?), even if this time he gives her a gun. You don’t read late-period Henry James to find out if the girl gets the guy, and you don’t watch a von Trier for a cracking yarn. Some things don’t have to make sense, they just have to work their magic on you.

It will be on Curzon Online for a long while yet. Go watch.

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