I saw Lars Von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac' as two volumes on the 1st and 2nd March 2014 at the Curzon Soho. It works more effectively seen in two parts on consecutive days in a comfortable cinema. Rather amusingly the cinema chose to play music prior to the onset of the two parts of the film. Songs associated with the more extreme aspects of sex and sexual attraction. The only exception to this was the song 'Je T'aime' sung by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, which is striking precisely because its erotic and gentle tone is at odds with the contents of this film. As the promotional posters assert, 'Forget about love'.
'Nymphomaniac' is the story of Joe's sexual development from childhood to the point at which she is saved in an alley by a gentleman called Seligman to whom she recounts her life story back at his apartment. She is a self-confessed nymphomaniac and attends a therapy group for the condition at a certain point in the film. Joe is played by three different actresses to represent the different stages of her life. This is not as disruptive as it could have been, owing to two factors, Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg look similar to each other and also the film's episodic structure render the characters as archetypes, they develop but their existences are about progressing the story to its inevitable end. The philosophies and ideas that underlie the film are arguably of far more importance than any particular character. Having said that as the central protagonist, the viewer does begin to empathise with Joe.
The plot device of the dialogue between Joe and Seligman in his apartment, provides a coherent structure to the narrative proceedings. Elements in Seligman's room enable Joe to contextualise her experiences, sometimes these are visual objects such as the fly (fishing hook in this context) on the wall that enables Joe to discuss her childhood in relation to fishing. Seligman helps her to analyse her experiences from different angles. The chapter headings creating the restrictions of a book. In life, we are quite often too caught up in our experiences to allow us to punctuate our experiences in this way but when we do, it does allow us to analyse them differently. We witness our own progression and/or decline with a degree of detachment. Joe's desire for sexual experience is actually no more or less pronounced than many of her contemporaries. The 'game' she plays with her friend who promises to provide a bag of chocolate sweets to whomever has sex with the greatest number of men on a train is indicative of the need to experience as much as possible by the onset of adulthood.
The men in the film are universally as interested in sex and its various forms as the women with the exception of Seligman, who almost serves the role of a Eunuch until the end. His final act and fate in the film is horribly inevitable but highlights the importance of viewing the film as a treatise on sexuality, power and gender roles rather than simply a pornographic film designed to arouse the viewer. 'Nymphomaniac' is not a film about sexual gratification. Despite the assertion that the film contains some real sexual acts (these do not take place between any of the main cast as the end credits reveal), it is far more intelligent and thought provoking than many of the Hollywood films that have touched upon the subject of sexual relationships.
However, where the film slightly fails and 'Shame', Steve McQueen's film about male sexual addiction collapses, is in their inability to face up to the possibility of sexual infections inherent within the promiscuous sexual lifestyle. Having said that, Joe does describe how she has lost the majority of her sensitivity in her genital areas and she is subject to bleeding. One of the saddest scenes in the film involves Joe being reunited with her first love, Jerome and making love with him, only to declare she couldn't feel anything. Sex outside of love becomes as meaningful as masturbation.
In its exploration of culture, patterns and power relations, 'Nymphomaniac' is a film that should be seen by anyone who has ever questioned the point of recreational sex outside of relationships and indeed, whether relationships are more enduring when they are platonic. Whether or not, you choose to see the whole film, try to see the scene when Mrs H played by Uma Thurman brings the children to see their Daddy's new lover. In a comparatively short episode, more is said about the repercussions of infidelity than in many psychological journals. It is devastating.
Barry Watt - 11th March 2014.
'Je T'aime... moi non plus' was written by Serge Gainsbourg and remains most well remembered for the version sung by himself and his young lover, Jane Birkin. Originally released on Fontana Records.
'Shame' was directed by Steve McQueen and stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a man who suffers from sexual addiction. It was released in 2011. It is worth watching in conjunction with 'Nymphomaniac'.
'Nymphomaniac' was directed by Lars Von Trier and is in all good cinemas now. It is most regularly screened as two separate volumes. Each volume is around two hours. Occasionally, the two volumes are shown consecutively.