When the title and subject matter of Lars von Trier’s latest film were announced, they surely piqued the interest of fans of the controversial director’s work. Known for putting female characters through brutal torment on screen as well as explicit sexual imagery (epitomized by the self-clitoridectomy in his last film Antichrist), it seemed that nymphomania would be a natural fit for him.
While those familiar elements are definitely at play in Nyphomaniac, released a few weeks ago in two parts, von Trier also interweaves a wild and poetic story rich in metaphoric associations and well-timed interjections. Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as Joe, the titular self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, who narrates her life story to an old, charming bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who takes her in after finding her badly beaten in an alley.
She starts off in her formative years, detailing some of the experiences that lead down the path of deviant sexual behavior, including a competition with a friend on a train ride to see who could have more sexual partners. Joe wins the bag of chocolate sweets they were competing for by convincing a married man to accept sloppy train car head, giving you a sense of von Trier’s darkly comic sense of humor that balances the film’s more depressing scenes. She falls in love, she loses love and as her number of sexual partners exponentially increases, her life spins out of control to the point where she no longer derives pleasure, or any feeling at all, from the act by which she defines her identity.
Von Trier alleviates some of the story’s tension with a pseudo-documentary style of quick cuts of vintage-looking stock images and videos of subjects relating to the narrative. It also helps that Seligman has an encyclopedic knowledge of a wide array of topics, and his non-judgemental nature aids in drawing gorgeous allusions, like three different sexual partners completing a person on different levels, much the way three notes come together to form a chord. Sexual desire and the hunting of someone to fulfill it is also compared fly fishing and the Fibonacci sequence, which also plays a role in film’s devastating climactic scene.
It wouldn’t be a movie about nymphomania without some graphic sexual content. There are a few instances of very realistic looking oral sex and one scene that includes penetration that was performed by pornographic body doubles and digitally spliced into the scene in post-production. There is also a fair amount of full front nudity, both male and female, including a highly entertaining nearly two minute long montage of penises of all shapes, sizes and colors.
With a film chock full of sexual content, von Trier goes out of his way to illustrate that Joe’s desires are often being enacted because of a compulsion. In many of the film’s earlier scenes as a younger girl, Joe’s vapid and downright bored facial expression is akin to a person picking dirt out from under their fingernails while riding on the metro. Even later in her story when she is no longer able to reach orgasm and seeks out sadomasochistic solutions to her problem, she does so by abandoning her young child at home alone. Her overwhelming desire to satisfy her urges was worth more to her than anything else. She may have gotten an orgasm worth losing her family over, but she never forgives herself for it.
After trying to fight her nature, she comes to embraces it, loudly and proudly at a sex addict support group meeting. She profoundly tears each member of the group to shred for their triggers and lack of impulse control and chooses to declare herself a nymphomaniac rather than a sex addict. Whether or not Joe finds salvation and redemption at the film’s close may be up for dispute, but ultimately von Trier gives us a very excellent study of a salacious character at her most honest and vulnerable.