Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg (playing the character Joe) are the driving force behind this brazen, in your face discourse on hypersexuality. In my experience of watching cinema for over a decade now, I haven’t seen sexuality so boldly presented. Lars Von Trier’s greatest triumph is that nowhere through the five hours of this two part saga, did I see ‘sex’ from the prism of its ‘taboo’ status in our society. It was the subject of the film, like any other. The actors were naked, people were having sex, you saw erect penises and other parts of the human anatomy. However, not once did I have to say to myself, oh I am watching someone have sex on screen. The brilliance of this filmmaker is the ability with which he normalized this subject matter for me. Hypersexuality is so complex and multilayered that LVT knew this fact with every frame, every sequence of the film. He didn’t attempt to rationalize or simplify it for you. He served it to you as is and then let you do what you wanted with it and this is what I did.
I think the first part in its entirety stands out for me as a masterpiece, where through the narrative, his characterization of Joe (played brilliantly, nuantically by Stacy Martin), the cinematography, the music, the locations … everything true to style and appropriate for the story. LVT knew every frame, every piece of his frame intimately.
The film is told through this flashback narrative that Joe is giving to this man who picked her up from the street, because he found her lying there injured and beaten. He becomes her passive listener, her philosophical mirror, as he contextualizes life and its various ideas for her while she relives her journey to him. While Joe claims that she is a terrible person, Seligman (played by Stellan Skarsgard) wants to know why she thinks that of herself. He questions the very premise of this conclusion that Joe has come to. He tells her that she is not the bad person that she thinks and had it not been the prism of society through which she evaluates her life, she would have been like anyone else. This relationship between the two is powerful. There is critique and discussion and reflection and compassion and sharing….well up until just before the film ends.
Joe’s character is vulnerable, yet self assured and goes looking for what she wants. As a young woman looking to satisfy her sexual (unsatiable) apetite, there is really no reason for her to explain or logify anything. She is who she is and continues to have sex with men at will. The important aspect of the first part is the control Joe’s character exercises. Even though she is the woman, she is the one wanting to be satisfied, not once does she lose that place of power and authority. The basis of Joe’s ability to satisfy herself at will is the power she exudes. She never once comes across a man who refuses to give her what she wants, barring maybe once in the film, where the man wanted to save himself to possibly impregnate his wife who was waiting at home for him, so he rather not have sex with Joe. But outside of that, there was not one instance where she lost control throughout the first part of the film. This was what impressed me the most, inspired me.
There is the discussion that could be had of how far can sex only be a tool to exert power over men? While the film doesn’t dabble in that debate, what it does try to debate is the impact this so called power trip has on Joe and the lasting consequences it leaves her to deal with. In all of this men are shown in very poor light, as these animals easily persuaded to drop their pants at a given opportunity. And interestingly the only man who has some sense of power in the film, Seligman, stands at the other end of the spectrum to Joe. He is asexual.
Then suddenly LVT decides to push the envelope and has Joe fall in love when she finally meets Jerome, the same guy she lost her virginity to in the beginning of the film. Jerome and Joe come together as any two people in love would. But in making love to Jerome, Joe realizes that she has lost all desire for sex. She doesn’t feel anything anymore. She feels lost and suddenly frets to reclaim what she rightfully sees is hers.
The film turns here and we begin our visit to the second part of the story. Jerome allows her to go out looking for men, seeking that lost paradise that she years to reclaim. While the first part is inspiring, touching, empowering to an extent, the second part nose dives like no other film that I have seen. Joe is this victimized, brutalized woman who goes door to door seeking to be repaired, as she can’t feel anything anymore. She can’t seem to feel sexual anymore and thus she is the victim. She is beaten up by her ex-husband Jerome and thus she is a victim. She finds that her battle with self-assertion is slowly being lost and thus she is a victim. Its not what the film was meant to be, I think. LVT plays into the well established stereotype that punishes the woman for being who she is and what she owns as her own. And though he has Seligman take the stage and give a moral speech towards the end of the film, where he actually questions why Joe suffers the way she does, and responds to it by attributing it to her gender, that one speech does not negate the fact that LVT has turned Joe into a victim. Someone who must be punished for her deviance.
Yes there needs to be aspects of the ‘consequence’ of ones actions that follow us, however if sexual prowess is to be punished, because the world thinks so, then Nymphomaniac does itself a disservice.
Secondly, the entire discussion in the second part of the film turns to the analysis of sex addiction as a ‘deviance’. Furthermore, there is a categorization of all deviances, which now includes homosexuality, with pedophilia and the rest. This is troubling because no matter how something is seen by the rest of society, when tackling such a ‘taboo’ (i’ll use the word again) subject, one must question the norm, the status-quo. LVT doesn’t.
The final moments of the film would have left me with some take aways. I was watching and then it happened and all I said to myself was ‘what? .. really?’
This is a powerful film, very unpretentious and daring. However, LVT changed gears mid-point and could not get the speed in his wheels back after.
image source: diaboliquemagazine.com