Reflections on Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (Volumes 1 & 2)


Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (Vol I and Vol II, 2013) are now on Netflix, so I watched them. It’s now been about a week since my viewing, but I still feel like I should make a post on the film. That said, I’m not going to bother reviewing it. It was released months ago, and besides, I’m still not sure whether I ‘like’ the film (not that it matters much if I do or don’t). Regardless, I do appreciate it. More importantly, I am intrigued by it. Perhaps on further viewings, I will grow less baffled by certain aspects of Nymphomaniac and will be able to better articulate any thoughts I have on it. For now, Imma write this thing.

What follows is basically an attempt to make sense of just some of things in Nymphomaniac that stuck out to me (and I don’t mean the penises lololol).If this post seems a little scattered, that’s because my thinking on this film is still a bit unorganized.

Oh yeah, the only other Von Trier film I have seen (so far) is Melancholia, and I absolutely love it. Maybe I’ll write a proper post on that one someday.
Watch Melancholia now

Sex isn’t Just Sex
Nymphomaniac doesn’t bother trying to give a real explanation for Joe’s nymphomania. While I remember seeing a reviewer somewhere (probably on RT) complaining about this, it strikes me as one of the film’s strengths, and it is surely the result of some deliberate choices. Joe never mentions therapy and no one in her life comes out and calls her a sex addict. True, some of the underlying Electra complex shiz in the film could be seen as an attempt to explain Joe’s nymphomania, but I would question such a reading. Certainly, Von Trier offers up the possibility of an Electra complex explanation, but, especially given the film’s attitude toward film critics and viewers (which I discuss a a few sections down), it seems likely that he does not do so sincerely. There is nothing explicitly sexual about Joe’s relationship with her father, and telling her story to Seligman does not lead her to some Freudian epiphany that she fucks more men than she can count because she desires her father and resents her “cold bitch” of a mother. Anyway, where was I going with this? Oh, right, Joe’s nymphomania is not reduced to some overly simplistic explanation. The film presents no trauma from her past that viewers can blame for her particular sexuality. There are no doctors who try to medicate Joe. By choosing not to explain away Joe’s nymphomania, Nymphomaniac avoids over simplifying sex and avoids reducing sex to a symptom.

Interestingly enough, Von Trier’s refusal to reduce and simplify Joe’s sexuality allows his film full of sex to be about much more than sex. Joe is a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac; this fact and the film more generally both seem to indicate that it is through sex that Joe comes to know and to understand herself. However, this is not to say that the film puts sex on some pedestal. In fact, it does quite the opposite. Joe comes to know herself through sex, because it is an activity she engages in and reflects on quite often. Joe connects her emotions to sex, and the way she sees the world is undeniably affected by her intense desire for sex, but that isn’t because sex is special. Rather, sex is just part of life, a part that Joe just happens to be obsessed with. As she understands herself and the world largely through her desire and sexual experiences, so does Seligman (the apparent asexual) understand everything around him through the countless books he has read. Given the state of Seligman’s apartment (as well as the way he talks to Joe), one could quite reasonably assume that he spends as much time reading as Joe does thinking about and engaging in sex. Presumably, someone obsessed with some other activity (be it writing, cooking, exercising, or whatever) could tell a story analagous to Joe’s (with the sex and and orgasms just swtiched out for something else). Sex is part of life, Joe desires and is obsessed with it, so Joe’s story (but not everyone’s) is one of sex.

And of course, there is the fact that much of the sex in the film is decidedly unsexy. Sex isn’t particularly pretty or erotic in Nymphomaniac. Instead, it’s pretty unimpressive, unspectacular, and, often, downright ordinary. Sex is what it is, it’s a thing people do. Some do it more than others. A nymphomaniac, Joe has sex more than most. Similarly, a person with allergies tends to sneeze more than someone who doesn’t. So what?

By rendering sex so common (having sex is no big deal to Joe, she does it all the time), Von Trier is able to use sex to explore just about every facet of life. Joe’s autobiography is full of sex, but it encompasses so much more than that. Through her explanation to Seligman of who she is (and why she isn’t too fond of her self), Joe explores everything from childhood, friendship, and love, to death, guilt, and violence. With as many sex scenes, instances of “cunt”, and images of penises as it has, the fact that Nymphomaniac manages to explore so much of life (often, in a profound and/or interesting way) is actually quite impressive. Really. A lesser film with a nymphomaniac as a narrator could be so much more shallow and truly awful.

It’s a Movie, Don’t Fucking Forget it. 
I’m not yet sure what to make of this fact, but it is worth noting that Nymphomaniac is a film that does not let it’s viewers forget that it’s a film. The film repeatedly and incessantly does things that make it very hard to ignore the fact that there are people behind the scenes making very deliberate choices, and that the film as it reaches viewers is a carefully crafted creation. Some of the ways that the film asserts is constructed filmness not a word dont care  include its heavy-handed frame narrative, the use of chapter divisions, switching between black and white, imposing images of things like the Fibonacci sequence and the Last Supper over the entire screen, and other such junk. This is not a film interested in convincing you of its reality. It does not claim to be unfolding organically in front of us. It is scripted, it was planned. Why does this matter? As I said, I do not know. Certainly, it asserts that the film is in some way aware of its status as a film, i.e., as a work of art that others will view. Nymphomaniac has no problem telling its viewers that it knows they are there. Given all the sex in the film, perhaps it’s trying to combat and to control our voyeurism. Or maybe, by consistently calling attention to his film’s constructedness also not a word apparently, Lars Von Trier is taunting his viewers, daring them to make sense of this thing that knows they are trying to make sense of it.

Oddly enough, the film’s apparent self-awareness frequently manifests as a sense of humor. Surely Nymphomaniac deals with some rather weighty subjects and, at times, is downright bleak, but the film itself it not entirely serious. There is plenty of absurdity and humor (black and otherwise) in this film. A scene in which Joe is shown trying to se -proof her room (she goes so far as to bubble wrap any surface she could possibly masturbate against) is particularly amusing. There is even a scene where it is quite clear that Joe (who is out in public) is only wearing eyeliner on one eye. It’s as if the makeup artist behind the scenes just forgot to do the other eye, but there is no way such a mistake would have gone unnoticed if it were actually a mistake. It’s an odd moment, and it’s hard to miss, but (like Nymphomaniac more generally) it’s strangely amusing, sort of ridiculous, and just a tad cryptic.

Seligman, Seligman (this section contains spoilers, but that’s cool).
For whatever reason, the aspect of the film that most interests me is Seligman. He’s the one who prompts Joe to tell her story and who sits and listens as she tells it. His presence gives Joe a reason to speak. In this way, he is clearly not unlike the film viewer who shows up to a theater and then listens to whatever the characters on screen have to say.

But Seligman (unlike most people sitting in movie theaters) does not listen silently. Seligman constantly interjects. He responds. He makes comments. He interprets as he sees fit. Given just how many interjections he makes (as well as the fact that Joe shapes her chapters according to some of his comments and belongings) Seligman can be said to influence the story she tells. This, in turn, reinforces the idea that the film is one aware of (and thus, influenced by) the presence of it’s audience. But there is more to Seligman’s particular manner of “listening” than that. Seligman isn’t just a stand-in for film viewers. Rather, he comes to represent those viewers who consider themselves well qualified to judge films about topics that they know nothing about. With Seligman, Lars Von Trier seems to mock critics, to poke fun at any that would try to make something “more” of Nymphomaniac, and he isn’t subtle about it either. Nope, not at all.

Certainly, it’s no coincidence that Seligman is asexual. He says this makes him a better judge of Joe’s story, but why on earth should this be the case? How can a man who does not desire sex, understand the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a nymphomaniac? And it seems even less of a coincidence that Seligman (who seems to do very little interacting with humans) is devoted to reading. One of his favorite works is an obscure book on fly fishing. Fly fishing has nothing to do with sex, but don’t tell Seligman that. On multiple occasions he insists that something in Joe’s story is just like something he read in his fly fishing book. Clearly, Von Trier’s film isn’t fond of critics who think that, just because they know about a book or topic, that that book or topic must be present in whatever they are analyzing. At points in the film, one even gets the sense that Seligman is less excited by Joe’s story than he is in his by his own ability to pass judgement on it. He gets off that’s right I went there on proving that he is well-read and that he is gifted with some ability to interpret anything according to what he knows. With Seligman, Nymphomaniac warns against over reading and challenges those who would claim to understand a work of art or the life of another.

Moreover, by constantly offering intellectual interpretations of Joe’s experiences (he even deciphers a vision she had, and at one point, brings up Freud), Seligman also cockblocks ha those viewers of the film who would offer such interpretations themselves. With all his talk of fishing, music, religion, and the like, Seligman discredits those who would make sense of Nymphomaniac by turning to works outside of the film. Whether the film is right to do this is neither here nor there, but it does so all the same.

Ok, so the film clearly establishes parallels between Seligman and film viewers and between Seligman and critics. Moreover, it uses these parallels to paint a less-than-flattering picture of all the parties involved.

By the end of Nymphomaniac, that “less-than-flattering picture” turns downright sinister. Having spent the entire night listening to Joe’s story, Seligman discredits those who would make sense of Nymphomaniac by turning to works outside of the film. Whether the film is right to do this is neither here nor there, but it does so all the same. After he tells her story, Seligman leaves Joe to sleep. Then, just as Joe turns out the light (that is, just as it seems the film is about to end), Seligman reenters the room where Joe is in bed. Cock in hand, he approaches Joe to rape her from behind. In a struggle that viewers hear, but do not see, Joe shoots him and escapes. Only then does Nymphomaniac come to an end. If Seligman is as much like a film viewer and critic as I say he is, what does this final scene say about the film’s attitude toward those watching it? Is it accusing us of coming to the film with shameful intentions? Does Von Trier mean to assert that the critic bent on coming to a film just so they can interpret it according to whatever they see fit and stroke their own ego might as well just stick his dick in a DVD player (or, even worse, that such a critic is not entirely unlike a rapist)? Or, perhaps this final episode is merely meant to punish those who are legitimately aroused by Nymphomaniac, those who objectify Joe and romanticize her life of addiction. Once again, Seligman claims to be an asexual and says that he does not enjoy or have any interest in having sex. That he, of all people, tries to fuck Joe after hearing her story also indicates that, for all his interpreting, commenting, and judging, he didn’t understand her story at all. For Joe, her story isn’t meant as a seduction or an invitation for sex at all; that Seligman (the viewer/critic stand-in) sees it this way and is killed for it, makes this quite plain.

Until Next Time
Watching Nymphomaniac is an experience and, at times, it is even a profoundly emotional one. Still, Von Trier’s latest work is most certainly not for everyone. . . for a lot of reasons. It’s a strange film and at times, is rather frustrating. That said, it’s worth a watch, and it certainly has something to offer for those willing to reflect on it. Frustratingly, the film both invites and actively resists strenuous analysis.

Oh, and if the sexual imagery/ orgasmic nature of the film’s (wet and dark )opening im not kidding doesn’t make you feel both icky and excited, well. . . watch it again (I just about threw my lap top when the music kicked in. . . maybe I’ll make a shorter post about the opening sequence some other day, because I love it).

Get yourself some Nymphomaniac on Blu-Ray yo.

Thank you so much for reading. Feel free to leave a comment here if you have anything to add to this post or have something you’d like to say about this blog. 😀

4 thoughts on “Reflections on Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (Volumes 1 & 2)

    • Hi Patty,
      I still remember how emotionally affected I was by Melancholia. I was totally overwhelmed. I’m pretty sure I spent a good half hour just staring at the ceiling when I got back to my room. Nymphomaniac left me feeling differently (in that is affected me to significantly lesser degree). Still, while I am partial to Melancholia, both are good films. I hope to finally getting around to watching Antichrist and Dogville soon.

      • Melancholia was more impactful. I just finished watching the Nymphomaniac volumes, and while overall they were interesting, some of the imagery was a bit excessive.

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