Oh, Facebook. Thank God I have you to tell me what I want. Think of all the things I’d miss out on if I just stuck to Netflix reruns of Archer.
When I logged on the other day, I found the typical slew of game and app suggestions accompanied by the usual “10 of your friends like this” tagline. I was just about to download Siege of Legends (or Legend of the Siege, I can’t remember which), when I stumbled upon an ad quite different from the cutesy FlappyBird ripoffs. Lo and behold, WTF filmmaker Lars von Trier’s latest opus is now available for OnDemand and streaming on Amazon a full week before its theatrical release this Friday. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the very, very NSFW trailer here:
Nymphomaniac is the latest inciting piece from the Danish filmmaker, known for such crowd-pleasers as Antichrist and Melancholia. Throughout his long, steamrolling career as an auteur, von Trier has been known to prod his viewers with a proverbial stick from time to time (remember that full-on penetration scene in Antichrist?), but it seems that stick just won’t do it anymore. His new plan of attack reminds me more of a scene from a certain Kubrick film, and no, I’m not making the easy comparison to Eyes Wide Shut.
SPOILERS ABOUND! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!
Admittedly, the premise of Nymphomaniac is a bit intriguing, if only in a carnal way. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who recounts her lifelong sexual excursions to the man who saves her life (Stellan Skarsgård) after being beaten and left for dead. With that said, off we go into the mystical land of von Trier’s sexual hang-ups. And what better way to set the tone than with Joe’s first remark (in her soft, understated British accent), “I discovered my cunt as a 2-year-old.” Buckle your seatbelts and rev up those vibrators, kids. It’s going to be that kind of movie.
You’d think that with all the sexual taboos that continue to mark Western society today (the MPAA is still morbidly afraid of the female orgasm) that a director as wildly unhinged as von Trier would use his 4-plus hour soapbox (look for Volume II in a month, children) to explore sex as a normalcy or at least do something to suggest that the female sex drive isn’t born in sin. Well, I guess he had more pressing matters to attend to. Instead, we’re delivered a gelatinously paced exercise in lurid fetishism that treats sex – or at least the female desire for it – as the scheming of a psychopath.
Upon arriving on her sickbed in Seligman’s apartment, Joe divulges that she is a terrible human being and her entire parable hinges on that assertion. As she jumps from her first sexual encounter to a train-wide blowjob contest over a bag of chocolates (Jordan Almonds for Chrissake! What, were they out of Reese’s Pieces?) to the difficulty of scheduling eight lovers every evening (here’s someone who never got into Lost), she tells us time and time again that she operated from cold self-interest. Meanwhile, Seligman seems to think it’s his duty to convince her otherwise, a task that becomes increasingly difficult as the movie trudges on.
While it may be muddled by von Trier’s philosophies – viewing women as hollow sexual objects, treating sex as a gross artistic subject that he doesn’t quite understand – Nymphomaniac is also a showcase for what he does best, and that’s work a camera. Like all of his films, the settings seem beautifully surreal. You can feel the cold desolation of the snow, the trees brim with life, the sex scenes intimate yet grossly quaint. And then he brings down the hammer with such lines as, “I journeyed through the land of the big black cocks [cue montage of dick pics]” and we realize that von Trier didn’t make this movie to be enjoyed. In fact, he may not have made it for any reason at all. Well, one reason comes to mind.
It’s a film that pretends it has a lot to say about the nature of sexuality, but taken as the sum of its parts, the message is at best muddled and at worst problematic. Take the aforementioned train car scene, wherein two teenage girls make a game of finding the most penises to suck before they reach their destination. The point of this vignette – liberatingly underscored by Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” – seems fundamentally opposed to what we would see in reality. Pretty girls don’t prowl the railcars, they’re usually the ones being prowled upon. There may be some feminist utility in flipping the truth like this, but when the protagonist finds the exercise emotionally barren and her body is wielded like a tool by a male director, is this really the right way to approach the subject?
Therein lies my main problem with Nymphomaniac. It pretends to stand for nothing, but viewing it that way may not be the most responsible thing to do. Von Trier frames most of the film like a four-year-old who’s just been scolded by his parents for undressing dolls for the first time. He seems to be wildly fascinated with the idea of sex, but it’s underlined by a shame in all who participate, especially the women. He’s the scolding virgin who preaches that sexuality can only lead to ruin, but keeps a tattered, sticky Playboy under his bed.
The only character who tries desperately to view Joe’s exploits non-partially is the Aristotlean Seligman, who remains scientifically fascinated as the story progresses. He’s like a film student searching for his thesis, at first equating all of Joe’s stories to fishing metaphors and then to Bachian polyphony (don’t forget the obligatory diagram, because we’re all taking notes). Most of his metaphors hinge on the hamfisted double meaning of “nymph” which can either mean a beautiful girl or an insect larva (nice one, Lars). And as if we still don’t get it, each vignette is interrupted by his forced comparisons to reading a river, baiting a large catch or using the right lure. It all plays like a freshman writing his first term paper and I’d give it a B-minus.
If you can slog through the nonsense though, there are a few gems that can be mined from Nymphomaniac – namely that passivity breeds cruelty, that sex and love can be mutually exclusive, and that if the male fantasy of female sexuality existed, that it would really, really suck (no pun intended). But mostly we can gather – at least from von Trier’s depiction here – that this whole conversation is just kind of silly and nonessential. His narrative voice carries no gravity and his musings bounce off and even contend one another. Most of all, it should not be taken seriously. It’s escapism for the art house soul and as close to porn as a cinema will get since Caligula.
But hey, maybe you’re into fish, heavy-handed metaphors, and lots of unprotected sex. Even if you can get onboard with two of the three, this just may be the film for you. I, for one, didn’t buy it. Overall, I give it 2 ½ dicks out of 5 – or 1 Lars von Trier. Now we just have to wait a week for Volume II.
Don’t forget to check out Nymphomaniac: Volume I in theaters March 21st or streaming now OnDemand.
Tags : Amazon, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Eyes Wide Shut, featured, Film, Issues, Lars von Trier, Men, movies, Nymphomaniac, OnDemand, review, Sex, Sexuality, Shia LaBeouf, Stanley Kubrick, Stellan Skarsgård, Steppenwolf, women