It opens to a scene of silence save for the sound of dripping water. No music. No people. Just the emptiness and the snow falling lightly in a brick alley way in some run down neighborhood. It could be London, New York, Seattle, Boston–any urban city in decay. The bricks are red, the corrugating roofing is steel and a body lies half hidden from the street.
Boom. The sound of Rammstein, jarring, almost unpleasant, even angry–I like Rammstein, I listened to it through out high school.
The scene changes, we see a middle aged man dressing in a dilapidated apartment. His hair is gray and thinning. He ties his scarf to the furious low gallop of Führe Mich…
Nymphomaniac was not what I expected (at best Moby Snatch or at worst the dreaded art house porno). Those with whom I had spoken about it rolled their eyes and sighed, suggesting that the movie would be some “test of my endurance.” I had no idea what that meant. I’d never seen any of Von Trier’s other works.
On the surface, the movie details the life of a female nymphomaniac in her own words, but beneath the surface lies something a little subtler…darker.
Joe begins her troubled tale from when she first discovered her sexuality at age two to experiences in masturbation as she approached adolescence which are displayed in flashbacks–I’ll admit this made me fairly uncomfortable, probably because of the voyeuristic nature of the flashbacks and the American obsessive fascination and compulsive loathing for pedophilia. The children in these scenes are re-enacting masturbation–which parents and anyone who’s worked in childcare long enough can tell you…yes, children can and will do that. So why does it make for such an uncomfortable scene? Children and sexuality don’t mix in America–it’s taboo, even though it’s a natural progression of self discovery, it’s still seen as “dirty” and “wrong,” something that happens behind closed doors to the frustrations of the prudish. Sexuality must be suppressed. Sexuality must be controlled. Sexuality must be harnessed. Otherwise it can be utterly destructive to one’s life and the lives of those they come into contact with. That is the dogma we are taught, and this movie unquestionably reinforces it.
There is no joy when Joe partakes in these sexual acts on screen. Part of that is conveyed in the very awkward and unflattering way the sex acts are filmed, from the cold, crisp lighting to the dead eyed stare of Joe in the act. There are no satin sheets, there’s hair, there’s flab, there’s squishy sounds, the dialogue is minimal, the looks are shy and furtive; some acts are very degrading–bordering on self punishment–and downright painful to watch at times, owing to their exacting level of awkward detail. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? It is. Early on in the movie, Joe and her friend, B, and fellow nymphomaniac played by Sofie Kennedy Clark make a game of their sexual explorations. The rules of the game are: Both girls board a train without tickets and the one who has sex with the most men will win a bag of chocolates, 1 man equals 1 point. This is where the fishing analogies become important…
Seligman equates the train to the stream, the men to the fish and the methods Joe uses to “catch” the men (get them to have sex with her) is the type of bait or “fly” and angling technique she uses. While she is lagging behind B by several points, we see her about to give up and concede defeat. B challenges Joe to seduce the man who had rejected her (B’s) sexual advances earlier, for an additional 5 points. Joe successfully seduces this man into oral sex by reading him, much in the way a fisherman would select a specific fly to use for a certain species of fish and thus she wins the bag of chocolates.
Seligman’s character is a seemingly asexual man juxtaposed against a hyper-sexual woman. Joe and Seligman are both hunters. Seligman’s prey is fish. Joe’s pray are sexual partners (up to this point, predominantly men). With that in mind, her mysterious appearance in the alley outside his apartment and her tale of self-loathing, emotional abandonment and woe should be called into question–and Steligman does question her story towards the end of the movie. It was at that point I began to see Seligman as a potential prey item for Joe. The alleyway became the stream, the falling snow analogous to the falling rain that precipitates a frenzied feed by trout, and she–a battered and unconscious woman–became a fly resting on the surface of the lake.
Nymphomaniac isn’t for everyone. The movie has very awkward, unglamorous sex and a lot of talk about Ashe Trees. Fishing analogies and literature and musical references attempt to give an otherwise debased story a sense of poignance if not legitimacy–fucking as a form of self exploration, fucking and Fibonacci numbers, fucking as a sport. There is probably a limited subset of the film-going population that it would appeal to, but I enjoyed the movie. It’s worth it just to watch Uma Thurman emotionally dagger a cheating husband by bringing her 3 children along to see the other woman’s apartment and “the whoring bed” with a hilarious monologue to a silent room full of uncomfortable faces. Somehow she found the perfect balance between painfully awkward and side splitting hilarity.