REVIEW: Sex in films is a strange beast. We think we want to see it, we anticipate it, we talk about it, but there is a detachment to the experience. Movies try to give it a range of appeal, from shimmering, ethereal fantasy to raunchy teen escapades, from writhing naked carnal one night stands to intimate, sensual romantic interludes. But it’s always a little unfamiliar, simply because sex is personal, even at its most impersonal. That said, Nymphomaniac has a lot of sex. A lot. Yet it is not about sex despite it being filled with dozens of on-screen sexual acts that are highly graphic, including full penetration, visible fellatio and more (while the lead actors appear nude, the sex is performed by professional pornographic actors and CGI used to combine them). It is about much more and uses sex as a tool to mask the deeper meaning and lets that meaning have more weight as it emerges.
That meaning starts here: “The difference between me and other people,” Joe, the androgynously named main character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg says, “was that I’ve always demanded more of sunsets.” This is moments after she tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a man who discovered her bloodied, bruised and nearly unconscious in an alley behind his apartment, that she is a bad person. She is in his bed, in warm, dry pajamas under a thick blanket, a cup of tea at her side and he, sitting beside her like a father waiting for a child to sleep. He has rescued her, but is clearly not her rescuer. He questions her self-hatred and assures her that nothing she can say will surprise him. She notices one fishing lure mounted on the wall above her and the fly fishing nymph he describes it as becomes the catalyst for her confession, a devastating tale of sexual awakening, exploration, unrequited love, and agonizing, perpetual dissatisfaction.
Directed by the perennially controversial Lars von Trier, who has built a career out of shock and awe filmmaking, Nymphomaniac is no exception, but like nearly everything he does, is seeped in a beautiful chaos that haunts, inspires, repels, disgusts, and arouses, making the experience unlike anything being made in modern cinema. Images of people engaged in uncensored intercourse are never truly appealing in the film, and that is surely by design. It is never shot for beauty or romance. The sex is angular, vouyeristic, almost judgmental, and always technical. Joe is also played as a younger woman by the sinewy, breathlessly beautiful but achingly vulnerable Stacy Martin, who spends nearly all her time in states of undress with dozens of diverse men.
Joe learns about the power of seduction on a train when she is still young. Her best friend “B” (Sophie Kennedy Clark), uses a small bag of chocolate sweets as a prize for whomever can sleep with the most men before the train reaches the last stop. She learns about starting and maintaining conversations (It’s about “Wh-” words) and steering men quickly into the lavatory for fast sex. It is here where we see that she gains no real pleasure from the brief, often awkward sexual encounters, staring blankly to some far off point as she waits for her unnamed partners to finish. Then she moves on. It is her final conquest on that train that gives her a sense of real satisfaction though. An older, married man who is dismissive to her advances, yet still attracted, begs her to stop when she kneels at his feet and undoes his pants but still allows her to continue. Here we see a young woman learning and discovering her immense power before it cuts back to her older self, chastising her behavior, appalled by the way she treated men. This is the crux of the story, the central premise of how addiction has spun this woman into a coiled viper of misery and self-loathing by a disease that has utterly defined her.
This might give you the sense that this film is dark and tragic, stitching one shocking sexual exploit after another, but is actually anything but. Biting and satirical, it has humor and emotion that lifts this up and even challenges the viewer. Of particular interest is the reduction of sex and physical pleasure into mathematical terms, abstractly connecting human intercourse with equations and constants, comparing Joe’s experiences with basic methods for reaching an end, or recognizing a pattern in the movements in her partners. There is a repetitiveness not only with how she approaches or examines sex, but the words and actions she uses as accompaniment with it. She tells a series of men, using the exact same words, methodically, that they were the first to give her an orgasm, and like an unsolved complex mathematical theory, each of their responses results in slightly different answers.
The fascinating thing about all this is its sense of style and the weaving together of parts that may in fact be fantasy with many that are sometimes achingly real. The screen is often like a sportscaster’s play-by-play monitor as words and diagrams pop up during what seems like inconsequential moments. Themes rise up out of classical literature and mathematical theories and music and we as an audience are consistently left in a state of question, which is surprisingly fun. But it all comes back to the sex, and in Nymphomaniac, none of it is going to excite you. That is the point. It’s harrowing, dreary, morose, and as we reach the end of Part 1, heartbreaking. Like any addiction, it is merciless and uncaring and always in need.
That Moment In: Nymphomaniac: Volume 1
Scene Setup: Joe, still in her younger years, finds work as a secretary where her first lover Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) is her immediate supervisor. She barely remembers him, but he yearns for more of her. At first, she rejects his advances and seduces other men at the office, confusing and angering Jerôme. In time, it all comes to an end when the company boss discovers Joe is woefully unqualified for the job and fires her. She takes on a string of steady lovers who arrive daily at specific hours.
The Moment (Timestamp 01:09:55): One such lover is a married man named “H” who has become smitten with his much younger mistress. She however wants to end it and uses “love” as a weapon to dismiss him, telling him she loves him too much and so must end it as she is sure he will never leave his family. She uses the words “it’s your choice” as she explains this to him, thinking this will repel him and force him to leave her. When he’s out the door, she physically shudders with disgust.
So, it is surprising to her that thirty minutes later, when her next lover is meant to arrive, the knock on the door is not him but in fact “H” with his bags in hand and a declaration that he’s left his family. Joe is stunned. But it’s only just begun. From in the stairwell, comes a soft broken voice that asks, “Has he gone inside,” and we discover that “H’s” wife and three young children are right behind him. Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) emerges from the shadows and approaches the shaken Joe, telling her she only wants to be sure her husband is safe now that he’s made this big choice, and escorts her children inside to see their father off.
Mrs. H is frantic, barely holding it together as she begins a slow burn that eventually catches fire in a frightfully painful and devastating breakdown as she tries to understand what is happening. As her children look on, she is bitter at first and wickedly derisive, asking permission for the children to view the “whoring bed” and even makes tea before there’s another knock on the door and Joe’s next lover arrives. Things become dark as she, in Joe’s apartment, attempts to describe the situation to her children and the immeasurable heartbreak she blames Joe for providing. She then hustles the children to the door and lets out a ruinous howl and strikes at her husband before exiting, weeping in agony.
Back in the present, after hearing the story, Seligman asks the older Joe how this episode affected her life.
“Not at all,” she says, but we suspect otherwise.
Thurman, who is in the film only for this brief moment, is astonishing and for once in the story, gives life to the other side of Joe’s addiction. How has her needs tragically had consequence on others? We have, for lack of a better word, enjoyed the journey of Joe, or at least been compelled by it, and von Trier has kept us bound to her tale, following her path with a kind of empathy for her condition. The men in her life are just that, men who either sought her out for her body or have been ensnared in her web for the pleasure of it. We have not even considered the world beyond Joe’s delicate bubble because nor has she. When that bubble bursts, and in walks the mightiest of storms, it is terrifying and shattering. We suddenly realize that Joe’s lifestyle, as acerbic and erosive as it for her, is not self-contained. There are leaks and for those not in her charms, those leaks are poison. And perhaps, despite Joe’s callus response to poor Mrs. H’s situation, it has found a way to the core. As the film ends, Joe’s confession in the arm’s of what she learns is the secret ingredient to sex, is both true and agonizing.