In a cinematic environment in which women were depicted, overall, as fully rounded human beings with a wide range of sexual expression available to them without judgment or disapproval, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac would still be a disgusting, degrading portrait of a terrible person that is completely unfun, unpleasant, unerotic, and unenlightening. But in the cinematic environment we actually have, it is a salacious yet also tedious portrayal of a woman who would appear to confirm all the nastiest stereotypes about women: that they sexually prey upon and sexually manipulate men purely for the power rush of it, and not because they actually enjoy sex at all. They just put up a facade of being cock-hungry sluts, for reasons only mysterious, unknowable, alien-like women can possibly comprehend. I mean, what is it with them, anyway? If only we could talk to women and ask them…
I suspect that von Trier believes that Nymphomaniac is him talking to a woman (one invented in his head, but still) and asking her just why she’s just such an awful person. And, sure, you could say that this is just one woman depicted here, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg [Melancholia, I’m Not There], and as a teen and young woman, Stacy Martin), and she’s not intended to represent anything other than herself. Fine. But there’s still huge problems with this that continue to make me believe that if von Trier loves women (as his defenders say he does), he’s got strange ideas about what love means. It’s certainly not about abuse, cold disregard, and pretending to get close while remaining distant.
Hey! Maybe that’s why the great “love” of Joe’s life is supposedly her twisted relationship with the awful Jerome (Shia LaBeouf [Lawless, Transformers: Dark of the Moon], sporting a terrible British accent for no reason; the character could just as easily have been American). Cuz von Trier (Melancholia, Dogville) wrote this as well as directed it, so we’re actually getting his idea of love here, perhaps. Joe’s first encounter with Jerome is the beginning of her sexual odyssey, when she (around the age of 14 or so) asks him (much older) to take her virginity. Which he does, with five quick unromantic thrusts into her vagina and three into her anus. (She counts. The count is somehow important. Von Trier puts the count up on the screen in case you missed it.) Neither seem to get any pleasure out of this encounter — it’s purely mechanical. She certainly ends up in pain, we can tell from the camera up her ass (figuratively) as she lurches away.
And there’s the first hint that this is not the story of a woman’s sexual life, but the story of a man looking at a woman as a sexual thing. Certainly Joe can have no memories of seeing her own ass from a short distance away. This not-Joe’s perspective occurs again in the next chapter of her story, when she and a girlfriend, both still underage teens, engage in a contest aboard a commuter train to see who can fuck the most men on the train in the shortest time. As they sashay along the train corridors seeking likely targets, there’s the camera’s POV again, down at an impossible eye level (unless it’s meant to be that of an invisible midget or child, though there’s no evidence of this) leering at Joe’s underage ass.
Here’s the thing: Joe is telling her sexual life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård: Thor: The Dark World, The Avengers). It’s the really long version of a story meant to explain why he found her beaten up and unconscious in an alleyway near where he lives, and why she dismisses her state of beat-into-unconsciousness as “[her] own fault” because she’s “just a bad human being.” (I think the aspect of this story that’s meant to be “compassionate” is Joe’s self-hatred. You know, like von Trier thinks it’s “sympathetic” to create a character who is a terrible, terrible human being as long as she’s aware of it and expresses how aware she is of it over and over again. There is such a thing as being masochistic toward one’s own fictional creation, and this is a great example of it.) So, we could take Nymphomaniac the movie as not representing von Trier’s perspective but Seligman’s perspective, as if it’s him having all those lustful visions of Joe being a bad, bad girl. Except that doesn’t make the situation any better, and there’s good reason later on, when we learn more about Seligman, for concluding that this cannot be the case anyway.
As Joe tells her story to Seligman, we can’t even be sure she’s telling anything like the truth. Because, just like Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, she grabs glimpses of the things that Seligman is interested in from the stuff in his apartment — he’s into fly-fishing, for instance — and incorporates those things into her story, and encourages Seligman to play along. Just as her life has been one long trail of manipulating men for her own purposes, she’s attempting to manipulate Seligman for some reason that is never clear, except that it probably means we can believe at least some of her story: she manipulates because she can, because she has a vagina and an ass that men cannot help themselves from fucking at the slightest invitation. (As with most examples of misogyny, men fare as badly here as women do. Men are nothing but fuck machines on autopilot, we learn. How nice for them!) But some of the stuff she relates to Seligman is so mendaciously absurd that it cannot be taken seriously. Her religiously ecstatic vision, as a 12-year-old, of the Whore of Babylon, accompanied by her first (spontaneous) orgasm is one. (I’m not making this up. Von Trier made this up, and thinks it’s somehow illuminating or even mildly interesting.) Her story of “Mrs. H” (Uma Thurman: Movie 43, Bel Ami), the wife of one of the men she has been particularly cruelly manipulative of, is so preposterous that the only saving of it is to presume that von Trier believes that, yeah, pretty much all women are dangerously cruel to boys and men in all sorts of ways (which, again, is not helping von Trier’s case any). We cannot trust Joe, and we can’t believe her. Just like a woman?
I wish I had some idea what von Trier was trying to get at with this yawning pile of nonsense. Teenage girls will prostitute themselves for as little as a bag of chocolate? Men are mindless fish? Four fucking hours of Nymphomaniac — and fours hours of fucking — and at the end of it, I don’t know why I am supposed to have bothered. Movie characters don’t have to be likable, and Joe certainly is not, but they should at least be fascinating. They certainly need to justify a four-hour-long movie about themselves. (And despite the Volume 1/Volume 2 crap, this is just one long movie, not two distinct ones.) But for a story that’s supposed to make us understand why she is the way she is, she’s as big a mystery at the end as she was at the beginning. What are we meant to take from this except “women are weird and strange and unknowable”?
Except, you know, we aren’t.