It's always a bit unnerving to hypothesize about the films of Lars von Trier. Lurking underneath any commentary one might offer is the disquieting suspicion that the Danish director of such unforgettable films as Dancer in the Dark and Melancholia has already considered these criticisms and has loaded his films, in one way or another, with subtle retorts to each of them. He seems to have found the sweet spot between profundity and sheer ridiculousness, urging his audiences to come up with theories in one scene only to mock these theories in the next.
His latest, Nymphomaniac, which arrives in the U.S. on VOD and in theaters in two parts, has already inspired several thought pieces, your usual mix of fanboys gushing over its artistic genius and detractors labeling it tedious and self-important (some do both in the same piece). Pre-opening hype has once again been fever-pitched, focusing on the hardcore sex (fellatio, a penis montage), the curious casting (Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater) and the familiar prediction that the film is going to piss people off. Pissing people off is one of von Trier's specialties.
I wasn't particularly pissed off while watching Nymphomaniac, but I found it impossible not to think of Blue is the Warmest Color, another recent film with lots of graphic sex whose Tunisian-French director, Abdellatif Kechiche, got a lot of flak for his arguably gratuitous lesbian sex scene and numerous close-ups of a naked Adèle Exarchopoulos, who was 18 at the time of filming. It may seem pointless to interrogate male directors' depiction of female sexuality in a world where most directors are male, but one wonders if these men are conflating a willingness to depict women's sex lives explicitly with an honest examination of female sexuality.
Herein lies the conundrum: One can't make a movie about nymphomania and not have it be about female sexuality. Von Trier knows this. Still, the film is defiantly ambiguous about its feminist inclinations. He uses the archaic, judgmental term “nymphomaniac” as the film's title, but then has a character explain that a nymph is not just a beautiful young girl but also the term for the young insects used as fishing lures. We are witness to a parade of sexual acts, some featuring stereotypical male fantasies involving teenage girls in schoolgirl uniforms making bets on who can screw the most men on a train. But then we see this same group of young girls swearing off love, chanting “mea maxima vulva” as they promise to each other never to sleep with the same man twice.
Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult and Stacy Martin in the flashbacks, insists that her exploits are reprehensible, that she's a terrible, shameful person, a sinner. But Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the bookish, genial elderly gentleman to whom she tells her tale, is not having any of it. For every confession Joe makes to Selgiman, he finds a metaphor not just to justify but honor her choices. When she and her friend are walking down the corridor of the train looking for men to have sex with, he tells her they are like fly-fisherman “reading the river.” When they can't find willing men, he tells her it’s just like fishing in a stream where, “as it happens, either none of the fish are feeding, or they all feed at the same time! They go into feeding frenzy.” When Jerome (Shia Laboeuf) takes Joe's virginity with three thrusts in the front, and five in the back, Seligman exclaims that three and five are Fibonacci numbers, examples of which boldly flash across the screen. The metaphors go on and on, incorporating Edgar Allen Poe and delirium tremens, the polyphonic cantus firmus compositions found in Bach, as well as riffs on the nature of long walks and eating rugelach with a cake fork.
Is von Trier mocking the way men try to intellectualize female sexuality? Certainly Seligman's metaphors are absurd enough to merit this interpretation. But there is also no denying what we see on screen: a woman deeply ashamed of her sexual trysts, and a man doing his darnedest to convince her that there's nothing wrong with them, essentially “forgiving” her for her actions since she won't forgive herself—ostensibly, an argument for female sexual liberation.
But if women are truly to feel sexually liberated, then should they need a man justify it for them? When are men asked to justify their sexual exploits? Rarely do we see single men onscreen bemoaning their sexual freedom and describing their conquests as shameful or sinful (Shame is very much the exception). No amount of high-minded metaphors will erase the fact that the burden of sexual shame almost always falls on women in our society. If anything, these metaphors only reinforce the fact that women are continuously denied the right to own their sexuality in the way men own theirs.
I suspect that von Trier, like many of his European counterparts, views American sexual mores as fairly puritanical. And yet there's something awfully retrograde about a film which offers us a nymphomaniac only to have a man defend her. For all the talk of Nymphomaniac being a “shocking” film from a “radical” director, von Trier's depictions of a woman incapable of enjoying sex and despising her sexuality are fairly conventional. A truly novel film would star a sexually adventurous woman, not devoid of love and compensating for her lack of it, not hating herself, but instead embracing her sexuality and feeling content with her decisions. I guess we'll have to keep relying on Lena Dunham for that.