From Sadism to Humanism: Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac

Lars Von Trier and cast discuss options. Photo by Christian Geisnaes.

Lars Von Trier and cast discuss options.
Photo by Christian Geisnaes.


It shouldn’t come down to a blow job. I hope it doesn’t come down to a blow job.

But it might.

Lars von Trier’s new film Nymphomaniac Volume I (Volume II is due later this year) gets sold on the basis of “nobody under 18 admitted” because of “graphic depictions of sexuality to a degree unprecedented in a mainstream feature film.” And that might be right, but I find it beside the point. I could argue technicalities, but having never seen, say, John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, from 2006, with its unsimulated sex scenes. I have seen Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, from 2004, and can speak to its onscreen frankness and matter-of-fact ejaculations. Would these films fall outside the scope of “mainstream”? They might well, but let’s face it: von Trier, without the sex, wasn’t going to play the malls either.

9 Songs seemed cheerfully devoid of plot or “deeper” meaning: Two young people go out every night to see a different band every night, come home every night, and go to bed together every night. Winterbottom’s point was to have no “point,” so far as I could tell anyway. This is how some people live, this is their nightlife, this is their sex life. The pivotal concept was to cast aside conventional movie in-bed codes.

Considering a cover version of "Lemon Incest." Photo by Christian Geisnaes.

Photo by Christian Geisnaes.

But von Trier isn’t happy unless he’s playing games. Some of his games have refractions in the wider world–to make a movie about sexual addiction when some medical professionals (and at least one friend of mine) claim it does not exist, makes for a mild kind of boldness. But the director wants to play more character-centered games, notably between Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe [sic] and Stellan Skarsgård’s older protector. She recites her sex-laden story with flashbacks and he follows along, expressing skepticism at certain points, not only about facts, but about her outlook.

The conventional shuck about von Trier’s legendary sadism is that he’s actually taking it all out on himself in the end, although I’ve never seen or felt that. His narratives, while vivid and distinctive, resembles Pilgrim’s Progresses that seem especially cruel to this atheist, and he always seems to be chuckling too loudly in the rafters. Together with the Coen brothers, he professes a sadly-popular codified cinema of sadism, although I’ll say “for” the Coen brothers, they treat all of humanity like an ant farm they’ve grown bored of as grade-schoolers and decided to shake, then break. Von Trier’s much more personal. He makes us care about someone before breaking her–and in his dramatic films, at least, it’s always a her.

A quieter moment from Nymphomaniac. Photo by Christian Geisnaes.

A quieter moment from Nymphomaniac. Photo by Christian Geisnaes.

So how surprising to see the sadist turning tentatively towards humanism, by way of sensuality. Even Nymphomaniac‘s early establishing shots sit beautiful, contrasting falling snow with grimy grey walls, courtesy cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro. Of course, a dark aperture appears soon enough, and for much of the rest of the running time, we’ll be looking at vaginas or their symbolic equivalents.

Sex? Sure. Unsimulated? Quite possibly, although comments from the filmmakers about putting someone’s heads on other’s bodies, seem to argue for “partially-unsimulated.” This is the equivalent of “naturally and artificially flavored”–admitted to the latter, but selling the former.

No, we don’t have a world where name non-porn actors (at least) can have unsimulated sex before the cameras and where that would be okay and folks would ponder the wider picture, not the mechanics. Maybe we’re getting there. I’d like to think so. The blow job on the train (involving a male member attached to an actor who looking uncannily like the director), looks “real enough.” So do a few other bits. But they remain bits.

charlotte-12smAnd it’s actually okay that they remain bits, because von Trier–I say this tentatively, wary that he’ll put some of his old bullshit for Volume II–seems to actually care for Joe and to sympathize with her self-loathing without actually endorsing it. He seems to find it sad that Joe reduces sex to numbers (times penetrated, times penetrated in which orfice, number of partners, number of partners vs. number of her “best friend’s” partners). She builds a life out of these numbers, and she makes her peace with ruining the lives of others quite often–a scene where a lover appears at her door bags packed and leaving his family, followed by the appearance of that family (wife played by Uma Thurman, another of von Trier’s knowing jokes) had me laughing like I haven’t laughed in a long time, masterful, knife-edged black comedy.

But Stellan Skarsgård wants her to be a better person. Better, because healthier, and though she resists, she’s finally, by the end of Volume I, considering his way of thinking. But the really subversive part–subversive to her own standards, her own beliefs, and von Trier’s classic stance–is that towards the end of Volume I, towards the end of her recounted scorecard, she starts to put the scorecard aside.

She starts, in her twenties, maybe early thirties, to actually enjoy herself.

And that’s more enlightening, more enlightened, and quite possibly more subversive, than the “realest” realist of a blow job.