I have a lot to say about Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Firstly I loved it! There is a lot that masquerades as sex positivity towards women’s sexuality that isn’t but this is the most genuinely sex positive movie I have seen in a while. Since this film is around five hours long and was divided into two volumes I will write this review in two parts.
Where should I start ? I enjoyed so much about this film and I am sure that that was only from the angles that I looked at it from.
This film was a little bit odd to watch in the cinema because of all the sex scenes in it. I normally watch my Scandinavian films with their nudity and explicit sex scenes at home. It’s a bit odd to be watching almost porn level explicit sexual content in a theatre. You feel a little turned on and there are strangers sitting next to you and potentially feeling the same. Oh the horror! It is a bit uncomfortable. In this way I finally understood what the Copenhagen Post meant when they reported last year that critics were “coming” over Nymphomaniac, with the attendant poster!
There were some points during my viewing experience where other movie goers would laugh somewhat salaciously and leeringly towards Joe. So I noticed that other movie goers did come in acting like this was a film made to cater to male sexual desire, even though this is an art film and is very much about exploring female sexual desire in its own right and not merely as an extension of male ego or male sexual need. I’m sure that Von Trier knew that many movie goers were starting from that conception.
Von Trier sets his film up cleverly. Joe the protagonist narrates her sexual life story to an excessively logical asexual stranger. As soon as Joe finishes each anecdote from her sex life, Seligman presents a somewhat calming influence ensuring that the audience doesn’t get turned out and putting out the sexual fires by evaluating what she says in a purely logical standpoint. If you have ever tried to flirt with a logical person who didn’t want to flirt back and watched them reply with a calm and uninterested logical response you know how brilliant a technique this is for making a film about sex while not making it too titillating. Having Joe narrate her story to an asexual man also allows the story to remain about Joe’s sexuality and her sexual desires and feelings instead of her story getting lost or overshadowed by the listener’s sexual desires or the listener feeling attracted to her from her “salacious” stories and feeling the need to also express his own sexual needs. Joe’s sexual needs remain at the centre of the story as they should be. This was a brilliant choice on Von Trier’s part.
A central point that Von Trier tries to illuminate in this movie is that sex without love is absurd. He has one of Joe’s friends as a teenager tell her, “The secret to sex is love.” Later after she has been sleeping with up to eight men a day to fulfill her obsession she meets the man that she loves and they get married but when she tries to sleep with him she can’t connect to him. The first volume of Nymphomaniac ends with Joe panicking in bed, “I can’t feel anything.” When she is finally with the person she loves she can’t turn on her feelings again. Evidently like a professor giving the last comment to a student who makes a point she wants the class to think about, Lars Von Trier wants to leave his audience to ponder that point.