Von Trier Has Dark Fun with the Big Questions

Stephen Tully Dierks


Lars Von Trier is a witty provocateur of the cinema, equal-parts thoughtful and incorrigible, who, like Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder before him, will do and say and make whatever he damn well pleases, and anyone bourgeois enough to be offended by their rulebook-less, auteur poem-essays will surely go see the damn things anyway, just to have an opinion, and because, unlike the majority of filmmakers in Godard and Fassbinder’s hey days, as now, in Von Trier’s, these are exciting stylists with more ideas in one shot than some directors have for a whole film. Likewise, even those prematurely annoyed by Nymphomaniac‘s in-your-face, advance-hyped, contentious-content-laden booby trap were undoubtedly first in line to see it, already mentally preparing their social-media denunciation or putdown-essay as the credits rolled.

Nymphomaniac features another of Von Trier’s by-now trademark tormented female protagonists, a nymphomaniac named Joe, played in the present day by Charlotte Gainsbourg and, in younger years, via flashback, by newcomer Stacy Martin. An older man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) takers her in after finding her bloodied and beaten in an alleyway, and the film consists of a series of flashbacks exploring Joe’s life as it revolves around her insatiable sex drive, punctuated by narration and commentary from Joe and Seligman. Both Gainsbourg and Skarsgaard play their parts straight and with naturalism despite the fact that their pairing is intentionally comic — Seligman is a lifelong virgin who knows of life primarily through books and insists on providing arcane, tangential comparisons and justifications for Joe’s rampant, destructive sexual activity. Seligman’s sometimes interesting but often random and laughable interpretations could be seen to satirize the wrongheaded way critics and academics reductively interpret the complexity of art and of life.

It’s plain to see that Von Trier is having fun with this material, and with us, and he makes it even plainer when Joe almost breaks the fourth wall by calling one of Seligman’s tangents perhaps his weakest ones so far. Or when Von Trier cheekily places numbers on the screen to count the number of thrusts during Joe’s first sexual encounter. As well there’s Von Trier’s choice and use of music — “Born to Be Wild” sarcastically blares during a scene where a younger Joe and her female friend compete to see who can fuck the most guys during a train ride, and the music is cut from abruptly and then rewound back. And for god’s sakes, if it weren’t obvious enough Von Trier is having fun, the title music for the film is by the hilariously over-the-top German metal band Rammstein, puncturing any sense of dignified arthouse decorum.

There are lots of these moments of cheeky directorial humor in the movie, some subtle, some obvious, and many reviewers have failed to see this crucial element of playfulness. And because Von Trier once again tackles sex and morality with a female protagonist, he invites the misguided attack of those critics who see him first as an arrogant male director and only distantly, secondarily as a supremely talented artist. This approach to Von Trier allows for reductive readings that assume intent and conclusions in works that are open-ended, playful, and ineffable.

Von Trier never definitively tells us what to think of Joe’s actions, and he never casts his lot with the nihilism or the sentimentality that run concurrently through the film. The most cynical moment in Nymphomaniac is perhaps when Joe compares her “monotonous” and “pointless” daily routine to that of a caged animal, saying, “Basically we’re all waiting for permission to die.” The most sentimental moment: a flashback to younger Joe lovingly attending the hospital bedside of her dying father (Christian Slater) bearing a gift of ash tree leaves, the type of tree he used to always take her to see in the park, “the most beautiful tree in the forest.” Nonetheless, Von Trier deliciously refuses to be somber and serious for too long, no matter how emotional or bleak the story gets. Even the scenes where Joe is tied up and beaten by Jamie Bell’s sadistic K character have an element of playfulness.

This dark fairy tale shows an uncommonly amoral person, but her selfishness, her lack of remorse, her cold journey of self-gratification can be seen not as abhorrent but as indicative of an aspect of human experience that is as hard to honestly confront as is death: that aspect being fear, and the insatiable lust for life, for satisfaction, to have our holes filled. We see the profound loneliness Joe experiences as she parades callously through her many lovers, the sad clinging on to little sentimental totems of shared experience (the ash tree leaves), the strange, un-asked-for, unreasonable attack of love in one’s life, and the grotesque way one can be confronted with one’s sins, as in a spellbinding scene where Uma Thurman, as the spurned wife of one of Joe’s lovers, brings their children to see their wretched father, his mistress, and the bed where the adulterous betrayal occurred, belaboring the horrific confrontation for as long as she can stand before exiting with a blood-curdling shriek (a career-highlight performance by Thurman).

The final ending to Nymphomaniac presents a dark twist of betrayal, unsettling our assumptions about a major character, but I favor the ending of the first volume, which closes like a symphony. Comparing three of Joe’s lovers to the three voices of polyphony in Bach, Von Trier shows — the screen divided as well in threes — the reliable but unremarkable lover, the savage, dominating lover, and the one she inexplicably loves, the secret ingredient. The harmony has been achieved.

“Fill all my holes,” Joe commands her lover. But it is not enough.

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