It was Carl Jung who theorized all genders have an opposite within. Men have a female side and women have a male side. He said part of what drives the unconscious mind was the anima and animus. If ever there was a male director who desperately wanted to bring life to his anima, it may be Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. And if there was ever proof at how futile his efforts are in tapping into the female side of his unconscious it lies there in his filmography. But dammit if he does not strive for it with a brutal honesty.
Though many have written him off as a misogynist, von Trier clearly has sympathy for women. Breaking the Waves (1996), still (maybe sentimentally for this writer) his strongest film, made a star of Emily Watson. She played a virginal bride whose husband (Stellan Skarsgård) grows distant. She turns to whoring and then implicitly rises to the status of saint. In Dancer In the Dark (2000), our heroine (Björk) escapes into musical sequences to come to terms with an unavailable father to her son as she gradually goes blind and meets the cruelest sort of end one could imagine. Most recently, Kirsten Dunst became his anima surrogate in the over-indulgent Melancholia (‘Melancholia’ offers intimate, if flawed, look at the end of the world), which explored the depths of a depressed woman (Dunst) but short-changed her grounded sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a giant planet grew ever closer to earth to swallow it whole.
In even more sexually explicit films, there is Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and Antichrist (2009). Either victimized or self-destructive, women are quite doomed in von Trier’s universe, burdened by their anatomy instead of empowered by it. But he’s far from finished exploring female sexuality. It’s fitting that his most primal and focused of his women-centric movies is the epic-length, four-and-a-half-hour long Nymph()maniac (parentheses for extra evocative effect).
As one can expect from title and that () in place of the o, von Trier’s unapologetic heavy hand is once again all over this film, which, in the U.S. has been divided into two films: Nymph()maniac Volume I and Nymph()maniac Volume II. It has also been more than cut in half for stateside consumption, it has also been shortened by a half-hour. One might assume it is a move by von Trier to protect the more puritanical American audience from explicit sex overload because there is a lot of it in this movie. To his detriment, he is a condescending director, who would consider such a notion, as his coerciveness once again mutes the impact of his theme. However, the film does have its strengths, albeit within a mixed bag of genuine effort.
The film is not rated, as it would have never earned anything less than an NC-17 rating. Sexuality is ever-present in the film. Even the U.S. version has a few scenes of penetration (body doubles were reportedly used). No anecdote is absent of sex or the implication of it (even references to fly fishing). This uncompromising effort by von Trier is by design. He does not only stay true to the title but creates an implicit effect that will indeed place the audience in the title character’s body. Before the end of the film, the viewer will become numb to the sex on-screen. This is actually one of the film’s strengths, as it draws the audience into the titular protagonist’s world.
Gainsbourg, in her third major role in a row for von Trier plays Joe. After a slithering camera silently turns a few brick walls and gutters dripping melting snow, we find her bruised and unconscious in an alleyway. We are then sonically assaulted with the film’s black metal theme song (there’s that heavy hand). An older man (Skarsgård) helps her up and insists he call an ambulance. She threatens to run away if he calls any authority, so he offers her tea at his place. He then tucks her in his bed where she proceeds to tell him a bedtime story all about her self-described nymphomania (a long out-dated psychological disorder on par with hysteria) and what “a bad human being” she has been.
The man, who later reveals his name as Seligman, for the most part seems rather unstartled by accounts of her sexuality, which begins with her first memory, when, as a 2-year-old, “I first discovered my cunt.” He can’t help but divert her narrative to his experiences as a fly fisherman and goes on about the “nymph” fly. She pauses silently, as if to say, “I don’t know what to say to that” and carries on with her story. This disconnect between the characters could be relevant or not. Maybe von Trier is subverting his own ham-fistedness, as Joe’s pregnant pauses easily invite laughter from the audience.
She later shares an anecdote where she took a challenge from a friend to try and have with sex with as many men as possible during one train ride. The film flashes back to a teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) and her childhood friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) as they plot and seduce for a prize bag of “chocolate sweeties.” Sex does not make the reward but candy. It’s significant to the gradual desensitization of intercourse for Joe. The two childhood friends soon form a club where the pair and other school girls chant “mea maxima vulva” while masturbating in a group. They swear to have sex with many different partners and never fall in love with them. It’s an act of rebellion against what they consider the oppressive notion of love.
There’s meaning in everything in von Trier’s world. Forgiving the teenage notion of “mea maxima vulva,” the idea that Seligman must connect her stories to fly fishing and his obsession with Fibonacci numbers are a bit harder to forgive. But, we can hope it’s by design. Joe hardly entertains his theories (and maybe von Trier would probably not forgive my anima allusions). She just carries on with her stories, each one divided by title cards, including “The Compleat Angler” and “Delirium.”
The transference between Joe and Seligman becomes quite apparent. Von Trier, as ever, gives us scenes that are choppily cut and highlight silences between characters more than dialogue. The internal world is always more interesting to von Trier, and this is his way to emphasize reflection and thought. This is a contemplative film. It mirrors what may be happening between screen and viewer. It’s as amazingly candid as some might think it lurid.
One of the easier chapters to swallow is simply titled “Mrs. H” also features some rather cruel humor. A rampaging wife (Uma Thurman in spectacular high gear) enters Joe’s apartment right after her cheating husband (Hugo Speer) has appeared with his suitcases, ready to move in with Joe. The missus has brought their three young sons to introduce them to the woman who has destroyed their family and takes them on a tour of Joe’s apartment, all the way to “Daddy’s whoring bed.” Joe just stands there, silent and unapologetic. It’s one of the film’s more honestly hilarious moments because it’s like one of those revenge letters by a woman scorned, which often go viral on the Internet.
But it’s a rather cheap joke that more importantly culminates in the usual coldness from Joe, who once seems to care less about emotional involvement over the physical act of sex. Men are replaceable to Joe. Well… except for one. Shia LaBeouf plays Jerôme, the man who once happened to take her virginity in three thrusts (plus five more in the behind, spelled out in numbers that are burned on the image, hence the Fibonacci number). He comes to matter to her because she denies him sex for much of their second life together, when he rather surreptitiously reappears in her life as her boss.
The most sincerely accomplished and, finally insightful, of the chapters must be “The Little Organ School,” which comes toward the end of Volume I. Once again, Seligman illuminates Joe’s account with a theoretical notion, this time the musical one of polyphony. And again, Joe turns the story back to herself, noting three particularly distinct love affairs during a time at the height of her sexual escapades, where she was bedding an average of 10 men a day. Our director, in turn, works in montages within a triple split-screen, featuring Jerôme at the center. It’s another rather overt move by von Trier, but it also reveals a complexity in this woman’s sexuality rarely represented so vividly and powerfully in the film. It also allows for a rare moment of emotional illumination of this woman, who may indeed have a human, beating heart and a desire to be understood.
Returning to the notion of anima and animus, it’s not incidental that Joe has a name more often associated with men. It hints at one of the more interesting premises in the film that offers up many ideas surrounding sex to varying effect. There’s one rather witty scene where Joe flawlessly parallel parks for a frazzled Jerôme who insists the gap between two cars is too small for his vehicle. So much for this idea, Germany.
Yet, as this film is but a “Volume I,” it feels incomplete when we get a sort of cliffhanger of an ending that would have actually worked quite ingeniously as a finale to the film had it been a movie focused on Joe’s trouble with feelings and sex. Still lingering of course is the mystery that put Joe in the street, not to mention what role Seligman has to play beyond fun house mirror to her tales of perverse sexual behavior.
It becomes difficult to make up one’s mind about this film without the completed vision. Maybe it will let down because, so far— barring some hopeful moments toward the end— it mostly feels like the usual forceful von Trier. Joe still has to finish that long story she began, so we can find out the why and the what in “Volume II.” Also, could von Trier be pandering to U.S. audiences too much? Has he compromised not only by dropping almost a half-hour of (what some reports have said) of more sexual images and some extended dialogue? Has he also gone too far in following the annoying trend of several recent Hollywood movies of allowing his film to be chopped in half for easier consumption at the cost of complete story flow? Beneath these kinks and complaints, is a rather intelligent and bold concept few filmmakers dare to unabashedly explore: a rather taboo subject, not just for mainstream cinema, but a male director: a woman and the power of her sex. Nymph()maniac Volume I stands as an interesting though mostly imperfect film that teases there may be some hope for the follow up, out next month.
Nymphomaniac Volume I runs 118 minutes and is not rated (it would have been an easy NC-17 had it been presented to the MPAA for a rating). It opened this past weekend in South Florida in Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema, O Cinema and the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand, but it’s a beautiful big screen film. Note: Nymph()maniac Volume II will see release in April. Here’s that trailer, which bodes some hope for the questions brought up by this review: