Film

Compulsive and compelling, Lars von Trier’s latest is as much about the nature of sex as the nurture of its telling. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Nymphomaniac remain faithful to the flesh

B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), left, and young Joe (Stacy Martin) on their Rabelaisian ride.
Credit: SUPPLIED

The Australian screening of Nymphomaniac begins with a title card. It states that the four-hour, two-volume version of the film we are about to watch has been cut by the producers to satisfy censorship laws; and though the director, Lars von Trier, has given permission for this version to be distributed, he had nothing to do with the editing of this censored version. So it is clear, right up front, that the film being screened at our cinemas is a compromised version. How then is a critic to respond to the work? How are we to interpret moments of ambiguity and confusion? Are they the consequence of an incoherent script or clumsy direction? Or are they the result of its censoring?

The raising of censorship is not superfluous to the critique of Nymphomaniac, which takes as its subject the ethical status of sex. Deliberately literary – as are all of von Trier’s films – it is structured as a dialogue between an elderly ascetic man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), and a woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whom he discovers beaten and unconscious in an alley outside his apartment. He takes her in, and over the evening, until dawn, she recounts to him the history of her sexual exploits. As her story unfolds over nine chapters, her aim is to persuade him that her choices as a sexual being are the result of an evil nature. His purpose becomes to try to absolve her of sin, of her shame, to offer her a deliberately secular and non-judgemental interpretation of her experiences. Seligman, the secular monk, represents reason and liberalism and, most controversially, feminism. Joe, the whore, avows a demonic language of irrationality, nature and the flesh. 

If all this sounds heavy, it certainly is, but the first volume is also often very funny. Von Trier’s impishness has always been part of his practice as a filmmaker, and the film undermines and satirises both the Catholic confessional and contemporary analysis. His work owes a clear debt to his Scandinavian heritage, whether it be in his continuing reworking of the theme of the cultural fear of women that informed the work of the great Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer; or more generally in the tensions between faith and existentialism that have played out in all his films since Breaking the Waves. But the playfulness in Nymphomaniac I leavens the serious moral purpose, as it must in a film that takes sex as its subject. 

In the first volume, Joe is played as a child by Ananya Berg, and as a young woman by Stacy Martin, and her sexual awakening is Rabelaisian and deliciously wicked. We first see her as a child discovering the joyous possibilities of her cunt and her clitoris. Sex is both a pleasure and a game, and it becomes the centre of her life. One of the delights of the film is seeing Seligman’s responses to Joe’s matter-of-fact recounting of her sexual exploits. He is scandalised but also enthralled, not dissimilar to how we as viewers respond to her narrative. The performances by Skarsgård and Gainsbourg, alternating between humour and purposefulness, are both equally finely judged. 

The second volume becomes increasingly dark. Joe is now married and has a child but her desires continue and she chooses to remain faithful to her erotic impulses. Von Trier’s work has often centred on the social ostracism meted out on women who refuse to conform to their allotted roles. I think one of the reasons that his work is often polarising is that he takes the concerns of feminism absolutely seriously but his work is often a critique of what are now feminist orthodoxies. Joe rejects motherhood and monogamy but she also rejects a role as victim; and in the film’s most confronting and arguably most powerful moment she experiences Christian grace and charity in an encounter with a paedophile. 

Inevitably Nymphomaniac confronts the equation with death that underlies the Western monotheistic metaphysics of sex. That’s a substantial and complicated subject, and I think that the incoherence in some of the later chapters is not only due to the censoring of the film. Joe undertakes a journey into masochism, visiting a male prostitute, K (Jamie Bell), who sadistically punishes his clients. The scenes between Bell and Gainsbourg are persuasive and disturbingly erotic. Through masochism Joe also discovers sadism and a means through which to assert her sexuality. Von Trier recognises that through such a choice, Joe is making a claim to a radical outsider position. He dramatises it by having her become a stand-over woman for a shadowy criminal figure, played by Willem Dafoe. At this point, for the first time, Joe embarks on a lesbian relationship, and she takes on the mentor role of the erastes to her younger lover.

The linkages von Trier wishes to make between religion and sex, the rational and the chthonic, are slippery and complex, and I think his pushing of Joe’s narrative into the conventions of the thriller genre is a mistake. Those genre conventions are not strong enough to carry the philosophical weight of the questions being asked in the dialogue. The final punishment endured by Joe is heavy handed both as metaphor and in execution: society often punishes von Trier’s female characters but it remains unclear here what the social represents. The alley in which Joe is beaten (and in which she is discovered by Seligman) clearly represents the liminal space of the unconscious, and yes, we get it, the “father” and the “child” are punishing the aberrant wife and mother. But hasn’t Joe already negotiated that banishment, and defiantly asserted her right to a sexual autonomy? Is von Trier asking us now to take seriously the psychoanalytic clichés that he has been mocking? Joe’s humiliation makes her victim for the first time in her own narrative. I experienced it as a betrayal of her character. 

Volume II is also compromised by a weakly developed argument about the Eastern and Western histories of the Christian church. Seligman locates suffering in Catholicism and the ecstatic in orthodoxy, but it is too schematic a distinction, and lazily scripted. And the silence around Protestantism is inexplicable, particularly for a Scandinavian artist. Surely, if the conflict between Eastern and Western religious sexual ethics is to be raised, shouldn’t it be centred on the utility and pleasure of ritual? That would make better sense of it being part of the chapters in the film that deal with sado-masochism. I had an increasingly uncomfortable sense during volume II that von Trier was cherrypicking at ideas, themes and tropes of sexuality.

But possibly asking questions of what is prudent and what is believable is the wrong approach to this film. Nymphomaniac isn’t that of the real world, it all takes place in a stylised non-contemporary Europe that feels as much Soviet as it does capitalist. HIV and sexual disease don’t encroach on this world.

In a few short weeks the complete, uncensored version of Nymphomaniac will be available to download illegally. If cinema is ceasing to be cinema and mutating into something else, it is clear that our systems of censorship are inadequate to deal with that transformation. Of course this maddening, frustrating, complicated and fascinating film is troubling for our censors. The dialogue between demon and saint, nature and consciousness, is both ancient and timeless. And, as Nymphomaniac suggests, it will continue long past the exhaustion of our present systems of liberalism. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 5, 2014 as "Faithful to the flesh". Subscribe here.

Christos Tsiolkas
is the author of The Slap and Barracuda. He is The Saturday Paper's film critic.