Paleo Retiree writes:
Right up front, let me admit that I’m not going to be reviewing “Nymphomaniac.” If a review’s what you want, read a damn reviewer. They get paid to do that shit. Instead, I’m going to invoke my privilege as a self-indulgent blogger in order to focus on one thing about the movie in particular.
The movie? Oh, c’mon, you know about it already, don’t you? Four hours long, shown in two parts, usually on separate evenings. With Charlotte Gainsbourg as a 50ish woman who has never had enough sex. (We’re told that she feels empty and so wants all her holes filled.) It’s the latest from writer/director Lars von Trier, the irrepressible Danish bad boy of contempo art cinema, known for “Dogville,” “Antichrist,” “Melancholia,” “Breaking the Waves,” etc.
At the beginning of the film, Charlotte’s a beaten-up heap on the ground of a seedy urban courtyard. She’s brought by kindly, elderly, lonely, bookish, asexual-seeming Stellan Skarsgård to his spartan little apartment to recover. As he nurses her, he coaxes her into telling him the story of her life. With alternating reluctance and defiance, Charlotte tells Stellan about the dirty-minded, daring hijinks of her childhood; about her young adulthood, full of despair and sluttiness; and about her more recent years, when she has been owning her nature. Stellan listens to Charlotte’s tales of compulsion, degradation, pain and ecstasy in disbelief and amazement, interrupting her to relate what she’s telling him to great art, as well as to religious and philosophical texts.
So there are two levels of drama and suspense going on. 1) The story Charlotte tells: how, why and when did she become a nympho? What has the arc of her life as a nympho been? And 2) The night Charlotte spends with Stellan. Will trust and openness occur? Will these two strange, withdrawn creatures be able to do anything at all for each other? Underlying the entire film is a larger question: Are connection and redemption — let’s call the combo “love” — even possible in our de-sacralized, materialistic modern world? (Lots of visual emphasis on alienating modern spaces and architecture.)
The biggest surprise of watching “Nymphomaniac” for me was how mild my reaction to it was. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it; sat thru it semi-contentedly, though I could just as well have left the theater at any moment and returned home. It’s a genre (art/despair/sex/religion) that I adore, and I’ve sat through worse examples, if seldom through longer ones.
Still, given the movie’s provocative nature, its themes and ambitions, and its many near-porno passages, it was hardly the reaction I expected to have. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t alone. As an indicator of how non-grueling, non-intense and easily-processed (ie., non-challenging) the film was: The audience we saw the movie with was at least half retirees and other cottontops, and there wasn’t a single outraged walkout. That’s right: prosperous old squares sat through all of “Nymphomaniac.” There was a little murmuring at some of the film’s more daring imagery — floggings, bondage, a blowjob, closeups of pussies and cocks — but no one raised a voice in real anger or protest. On the art-movie Intensity-o-Meter, where “The Virgin Spring,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and “Romance” all score solid 10s, it seemed to me that “Nymphomaniac” deserved about a 3.
Since seeing the movie I’ve wondered a lot about how to explain this. I’ve found it a real puzzle. The movie has all the elements one could ask for from a sex/art/despair/religion experience, and von Trier is obviously some kind of super-energized talent, as well as a creative phenomenon of some non-trivial sort. So why was the impact of the film so wan?
I mainly find myself musing about post-modernism. Though the themes in “Nymphomaniac” are of the highest Euro-seriousness, there’s no question that von Trier delivers an often cheekily po-mo treatment of them. There’s a lot of game-playing (of an “Is it ironic or not?”) sort going on. Charlotte and Stellan’s characters step out of character here and there to critique each other’s contributions and storytelling. Is she making her story up? Are his interpretations of it valid? How would we know? And does it matter? The movie is broken into chapters with cute flourishes; there are visual effects that wouldn’t look out of place in whooshy, overblown car commercials …
I think it’s fair-ish to say that von Trier is to art movies what Tarantino is to junk action films. Like QT, von Trier seems to proceed by making a list of the elements he wants his film to be composed of; breaking them them apart; and then playing mix-and-match like a creative kid at a progressive school doing inventive things with blocks.
Now, I’m not un-sympathetic to post-modernism, with its emphasis on throwing all kinds of different things together and its fondness for multiple points of view. But maybe something that can happen when you deconstruct a genre and play with the pieces is that all the oomph goes out of a project. Benefits of po-mo: You’re speaking a contemporary language, and you get to enjoy and purvey some fun, some exuberance and some cheap laughs. But maybe you do so at the risk of losing the core integrity of the thing.
So maybe intensity of a transcendental/metaphysical kind is simply not something post-modernism is capable of dealing with. Maybe intensity of that kind is from another era, one when people believed in identity and in not breaking the frame. In the better films of Bergman and Breillat, for instance, the energy doesn’t go into cheeky neo-ironies but into creating characters and situations that audience members can see aspects of themselves (and their fates) in. When transport, despair, hope and degradation happen in the movies von Trier is ripping off, er, appropriating, the moments aren’t signaled and conveyed (as they are here) by big flashing arrows, ka-thumps and goofy effects, they’re things we experience internally. There’s a glow that transmits from soul to soul, from filmmaker to characters to audience. In “Nymphomaniac,” everything is surfaces, obvious effects and playfulness; even the most somber emotional effects are externalized. A more basic question: Does po-mo even allow for a character to have an inner life? If it doesn’t, then what’s the point of an exercise like “Nymphomaniac”?
I don’t think that’s too bad a shot at explaining what I felt was the film’s main shortcoming. It does have some weaknesses, though.
For one: I’ve run across young people who have told me that they did find “Nymphomaniac” transporting, shocking, moving and intense. So it has to be acknowledged that the film works for some people, if mostly of the youthful persuasion. And that means that von Trier really is on to something. Let me try to sum up what he accomplishes in a positive way: He’s tackling the themes of a certain kind of Great European Art for a new generation, and he’s dealing with these themes and presenting ’em in a way that today’s web-surfing/texting/TV-watching youngsters can relate to and feel moved by. If this is true — and I’m afraid it is — then good for him, and good for his audience. OK, a part of me wants to yell at the damn youngsters to go experience some REAL Euro-art; by God, then they’ll see what REAL depth is. But the future belongs to the young, you know? If they know nothing about art history, if they’re all of two inches deep, and if they want their sex-and-religion movies to ricochet off of websites, ads and TV commercials instead of off of movie history, maybe that’s just how things are going to be.
Another weakness in my theory: I’ve seen a few movies of the po-mo/video/web-surfing ilk that have generated intensity of a kind that even I can respond to. I’m not a fan of Tarantino’s — I have the same trouble with his movies that I had with “Nymphomaniac” — but those who respond to him apparently get swept away by his work. The two “Crank” movies, though, which I do love, are like Buster Keaton movies made by Ritalin-addled skateboarding nuts. It’s impossible to say that the characters and situations in the “Crank” films matter much in any emotional sense, but I found both movies to be hard-to-resist, high-spirited hoots. If I were in the mood, I’d try to make the case that Neveldine/Taylor, the writer-director team behind the “Crank” movies, show how to use the mash-up approach effectively in a feature-film context, and that that’s a genuinely major moviemaking achievement. And two films of Gaspar Noé’s, “Irreversible” and “Enter the Void” — which inhabit a computerized, flattened present much like that of Von Trier’s movies, and which take on themes that are just as big as “Nymphomaniac”‘s — to my mind really are awesome, intense and transporting. When I watched them at the theater, they affected audiences in much the same way that the daring-est movies of the ’70s affected their audiences: stirred ’em up, got ’em arguing, enraged some, delighted others … So it — and by “it” I mean “dramatizing the Big Themes in a post-modern way that really does deliver deep and transforming moments” — can apparently be done.
What am I left with? Maybe po-mo does have something to do with it. Maybe it’s possible — but maybe it’s really, really hard — to use ramshackle eclecticism to achieve transport and intensity. Or maybe the failure (to my mind) and the success (to other people’s minds) of “Nymphomaniac” has to do with von Trier’s particular sensibility and gifts. Maybe he is, as my wife and I laughed to each other, “the greatest director Wesleyan College ever produced.” (East Coasters aware of Wesleyan’s rep as a place that encourages a certain kind of antic, arbitrary creativity in its generally moneyed students will understand the joke.) Maybe von Trier really just is, for all his gifts and energies, nothing but a capering, full-of-himself trust-fund baby completely incapable of bringing characters to convincing life in a traditional sense. And let’s not forget that, despite his neo-hippie daring, von Trier has a drearily moralizing side. Unlike Bergman, Breillat and Jean-Claude Brisseau, all of whom push eros and religion so close together that they merge, von Trier never lets the near-porno passages in his movie be arousing. Maybe it’s hard — or even impossible — to make priggishness transporting.
But maybe the best explanation is that, for all my interest in and experience with this kind of art and entertainment, I’m getting old. Maybe “Nymphomaniac” just wasn’t meant for me.
- Fabrizio on “Crank 2.“
- A piece I wrote for Salon about Breillat’s “Romance.”
- Me on “Irreversible.“
- Matt Forney didn’t much like “Irreversible.”
- Another piece I wrote for Salon, this time about sex and movies generally.
- I whined about the direction movies are going in this blogposting about “300.“
- A posting I wrote about a doc about Ingmar Bergman.
- I loved Jean-Claude Brisseau’s “Exterminating Angels.“
- Don’t forget to visit our NSFW Tumblr blog, where we share some of the kinky and peculiar things that set fire to our libidos.