What makes Lars von Trier one of cinema’s most fascinating directors? It is his willingness to pull out the stops in a riotous search to understand his own mind and ask questions about human nature. His films are a quest to find himself.
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1. Directed by Lars von Trier. At Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge and other select movie houses around New England. Opening March 21th.
by Tim Jackson
Expect anything from Lars von Trier — but when the film is called Nymphomaniac: Volume 1, and it’s in two parts, be prepared for a very wild ride. The Danish film director, screenwriter, and committed provocateur can be maddening, confusing, surreal, charming, and disarming. You may love him for his nerve, hate him for his politics, or find yourself somewhere in between. But it’s hard to turn away from the bedeviling accumulation of his images, from the beautiful to the grotesque.
In Antichrist he fabricated a fantastical world of sado-masochistic eroticism, images that burned the screen and the eyeballs with writhing bodies and talking deer. Then, in Melancholia, the world exploded into an ecstasy of ravishing slow motion images, but not before a tortured wedding party dissolved into chaos. Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 may actually be a more hopeful movie than those two. But then again, this is only Part One.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, in her third role for von Trier, is the titular heroine named Joe. Stellan Skarsgård is Seligman, the man who rescues her, bruised and beaten, from an alleyway and takes her to his humble home where she recounts the woeful tale of her troubled sexual history. This “once upon a time” story of her descent into uncontrollable lust is retold in distinct chapters: “The Compleat Angler”; “Jerome”; “Mrs. H”; “Delirium”; and “The Little Organ School.”
Sitting at the edge of her bed and listening to her stories, Seligman becomes her father confessor. But as a scientist and non-believer, he dismisses conventional moralistic notions that she has sinned or should feel shame. Instead, he takes an empirical approach to her story. In the first chapter, “The Compleat Angler,” Seligman enlightens Joe about the remarkable similarities between the rituals practiced by females on the hunt for men and the time-honored methods of fly fishing. (Skarsgård brings his trademark pose of troubled earnestness to the talk.) His information about fishing comes from The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton, a book that has been in print for hundreds of years in more than 400 editions. He intersperses her lusty narrative of transgression with scientific theories and philosophical ideas, which are in turn explained and illustrated with cutaways that reenact the points being made, or are clarified with on-screen graphics as well as superimposed text. Sometimes the story dives into graphic depictions of the sex act, at other times her couplings are accompanied by scientific explanations about genitalia and biology. When Joe describes a growing awareness of her sexual feelings as a child, the scenes are tastefully and humorously recounted. (Joe as a sexual adolescent is unabashedly performed by model and newcomer Stacy Martin.)
As with von Trier’s two previous films, Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 is chock full of ideas and images about atavism and virtue, as well as murky examinations of the conflict between wild nature and human nature, instinct and reason. The patchwork of intellectual conceptions — abstract, concrete, enigmatic — are dramatized in striking visual compositions. The plot line and dialogue are surely meant to tantalize and provoke audiences. Should we be laughing at von Trier’s audaciousness, contemplating his ideas, or be offended by his use of graphic content? There are inevitably going to be accusations of misogyny, critics arguing that in this films the director offers only the most abusive and exploitive roles to actresses. It would be more accurate to say that he is both fascinated by and fears the power of female sexuality. Following her own difficult time with the director on Dancer in the Dark, the Icelandic singer Björk swore she would never act in another film. On her blog she posted that von Trier: “needs a female to provide his work soul. And he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming. And hide the evidence.”
It is the director’s willingness to pull out the stops in a riotous search to understand his own mind and ask questions about human nature that makes him one of cinema’s most fascinating directors. His films are a quest to find himself. Caroline Bainbridge, author of The Cinema of Lars von Trier, claims his female characters are “expressions of him, an expression of his internal life” and that he has “even claimed that he feels himself to be feminine to some degree.” What about the inevitable speculation about religious allegories, conversations of faith, and existential dilemmas in his films? Von Trier, who once converted to Catholicism, responds: “Perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen.”
The opening scene is worth noting. Before the even first shot, a blank screen appears holding the audience in anticipation little too long. It feels ominous, but the audience eventually begins to giggle. Finally, a slow panning camera reveals grey and brown crumbling walls, dripping water and alleyways. Seligman enters and comes upon Joe’s body lying on the pavement. She doesn’t want his help; she wants to tell her story. Cue German heavy metal band Rammstein and its insistently pounding song “Führe Mich” with its manically growling vocals. We are thrust into Lars von Trier territory – portentous, disorienting, precariously balanced between the hammy and the haunting. Here is the English translation of the lyrics:
You have grown in my heart
When I bleed you have pains
We must know ourselves
One body, two names
Nothing can disunite us
A twin body in semen
If you cry, it’s okay with me
The hand of your fear, feeds my blood
In contrast, by the end of Part 1, Bach and polyphony have become key musical motifs. Seligman elaborates on descriptions of Bach’s technique, of the Golden Ratio, directly comparing musical structure to Joe’s sexual conquests. The film closes with the return of the sonic churning of Rammstein.
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 features some terrific acting, including Shia LeBeouf as Jerôme, and Christian Slater and Connie Neilson as Joe’s father and mother. The standout performance may well be Uma Thurman’s. In the chapter called “Mrs. H.,” Thurman plays a jilted wife who appears with her three sad children at the door of Joe’s apartment. Her husband has just arrived to move in with Joe: he believes Joe is in love with him, which she is not. The cringe-inducing scene is clever and horrific. The actress has been good in a lot of films, but here I was hard pressed to even recognize her transformation.
As for Charlotte Gainsbourg, the actress who holds the title role, there is an interesting synchronicity: she is the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin (he is subject of the 2010 film Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life). Her father was a successful composer, singer, and himself a provocative artist. Famously, Birkin and Gainsbourg had a hit in 1969 with “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” which featured explicit lyrics that included sounds of a female orgasm.
In what seems more than coincidence, I recently found a 1972 Swedish film called Anita – Swedish Nymphet starring Christina Lindberg (her credits include Around The World With Fanny Hill and other masterpieces). In this film, Anita meets a psychology student who listens to her stories and wonders if her problem isn’t nymphomania. The student is played by Stellan Skarsgård! In Nymphomaniac: Volume 1, Joe is philosophically opposed to the possibility that love might be a cure for her problem. In Anita, the character discovers that only a genuine orgasm can cure her sex addiction. That von Trier would adapt a plot from an early Scandinavian exploitation picture suggests that he is being a bit of a tease.
The film’s disclaimer is also worth mentioning; after the credits have rolled a caveat comes up to the effect that “none of the professional performers performed any sex acts or actual insertions during the making of this film.” Is that the equivalent of “no animals were harmed” or “no actors were pleasured”? Does that mean the sex was computer generated? The search for reality continues!
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed two documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His a third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 year, screens with a Q&A and live performances at the Regent Theater in Arlington on April 4th. You can read more of his work on his blog.