“Nymphomaniac”

Paleo Retiree writes:

charlotteposter

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 Will these two strange, withdrawn creatures be able to do anything at all for each other?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.)

charlotte01

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.

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About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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25 Responses to “Nymphomaniac”

  1. Great essay. Given that most of the reviews I’ve read are lukewarm to negative, not to mention being four freakin’ hours long, I think I’ll safely put this one on the back burner.

    But speaking of art/despair/sex, I watched IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES last night and enjoyed it a lot. What do you think of that one? I knew next to nothing about it going in and was surprised not only by the ending, but by how virtually every scene is hermetically focused on sex. Well, sex and death. That film is going on 40 years old and it may be more provocative than anything in the von Trier canon.

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    • I remember it pretty well. Nothing if not intense, that’s for sure. I seem to recall that the actress (who I thought was really amazing) only did a couple of roles total and then disappeared. How’d you happen to take a look at it?

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      • It’s on Hulu+. I went through all the Criterion movies a couple months ago, flagged the ones I was interested in (maybe 50 or so), and I’ve been working my way through them.

        Yeah, she was excellent, wasn’t she? In my googling after watching it, I came across a piece that said the Japanese public came down pretty hard on her after the film was released. The male lead went on to be a star but she was only offered porn roles.

        Looks like Donald Richie tracked her down to Europe, but, as the comments to this piece say she wound up working at a bakery in Brazil: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1114-in-the-realm-of-the-senses-two-women

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    • Callowman says:

      My best friend and I saw In the Realm of the Senses when we were in high school. I don’t think I’d had sex yet at the time, and yeah, it blew me away. I still remember some of the visuals, which, in memory, seem Blade Runnerish without the sci-fi angle. Afterwards, we drove home through a light rain, sitting in stunned silence for the first mile or so, until I blew a huge, noisy fart. Half a mile later, my friend blew a big one of his own. We continued to trade big, razzing pantsrippers for the rest of the drive, laughing so hard it was hard to stay on the road. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t raining; maybe it just looked that way through my tears of laughter. My friend hypothesized that the farts were a mechanical effect caused by sitting on a boner for two hours.

      Sorry if that was off topic, and it certainly wasn’t a review, but hey, Paleo’s wasn’t either, was it?

      Films hit you differently depending on when you see them. When I saw The Lion King with my preschool age son, I remember thinking, “Eh, ho-hum, touches all the bases, I guess, but a little thin.” But it DID touch all the bases, and kids that age have never seen those bases touched, and thus little Simba’s coming-of-age story was the leitmotif of the next six months or so of role-playing by my son and his friends. If I saw In the Realm of the Senses today, it would no doubt have a different impact than it did on virginal me back in the late 70s, when all it inspired was a powerful but two-dimensional mix of lust and horror. Easy to imagine younger people getting off on Nymphomaniac, but nothing I’ve read about it makes me want to rush out and see it.

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  2. Your piece on ROMANCE reminds me that FAT GIRL is in my Hulu+ queue. Might be time to watch that one next.

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    • Cool link, tks. Sad that people don’t value it more when performers take the big chances. You’d think they’d want to encourage more daring, not less.

      Speaking about daring … “Fat Girl”‘s pretty awesome, IMHO. Eager to hear how you react to it. Does Hulu+ have any additional Breillat movies?

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      • No, Hulu doesn’t have any other Breillat movies, unfortunately.

        Just watched FAT GIRL, liked it a lot. I saw ROMANCE during its original run, when it was only playing at the Nuart in west L.A., but man, I remember being pretty baffled by it at the time. That one is due for a rewatch.

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  3. I’d place my bet on it really actually being shit, personally. Trier is a narcissist, simple as that, just a talented one, as is Tarantino. They communicate very well their self-obsession, but not much more. It is THAT which resonates with the young audience.

    I do think you’re right however that the way movies were made in the 20th is increasingly irrelevant. I notice my kids are rarely interested in straight narrative, they prefer “worlds” that they enter immersively, like Game of Thrones for example.

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    • >>I notice my kids are rarely interested in straight narrative, they prefer “worlds” that they enter immersively, like Game of Thrones for example.

      Yup, “world-building” is something the crops up repeatedly. They love sci-fi and fantasy entertainments that create a mythos, an epic landscape, as much (or more) than the narrative itself.

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  4. agnostic says:

    The most intense and effective movie touching on these themes — sex, despair, degradation, godlessness, redemption, and technology — is Videodrome.

    It too has an early scene where a regular guy gets in over his head with a nymphomaniac, and tumbles down the rabbit hole from there. Unlike what little I’ve seen from / heard about the Von Trier movie, though, the regular guy isn’t a caricature of bookish Puritanical asexuality. He’s a TV program director whose business strategy is to out-do the other stations in shock value. Outcome: we understand that a nymphomaniac would disturb even a desensitized sleaze pedlar.

    What do we take away from Von Trier — that this woman has disturbed a nerd with no dick? A friggin’ middle school dance could’ve done that. We cannot empathize with his reaction to appreciate just how degraded her life has been, but must do so by ourselves… But we could’ve done that without him being there as a listener. Just show a montage of pointless out-there sex, and let us pass easy judgement.

    When you’re taking the audience into far-out territory, we need some frame of reference — “farther out-there than such-and-such behavior?” The explorer who we’re meant to connect with as a guide must be a little sketchy or pervy himself (and still sympathetic), like James Woods’ character in Videodrome or Kyle MacLachlan’s in Blue Velvet. Otherwise, we only appreciate that we’re sinking below normal world and entering weird world, without any sense of just how far down this world has sunken.

    The Von Trier approach cannot make us experience intensity and despair because those are quantitative things — dialing it up — and we have no sense of distance when the opposition is between “this side of the line” vs. “that side of the line.” OK, but how far over on that side? Exploring the other side on its own terms, in the Puritanical mind, would be to validate it and hence undermine the larger moral message.

    The Catholic approach of making temptation palpable for the audience is not pornographic. It is to acknowledge our humanity, that temptation is strong and doesn’t just go away, and is something we need to be on our guard about. The audience is naturally moved more by this humble rather than haughty treatment of the themes of sin and redemption, and is left underwhelmed by the priggish alternative.

    (I know that David Cronenberg is Jewish, but he doesn’t indulge in the more typical Jewish style of exploring the other side of the line just for the point of raising questions about whether we can judge what is valid and invalid. Jews don’t seem to be so capable of the redemption side of the story, though — it usually ends on a downer. Compare against the Celtic-shaped Blue Velvet.)

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  5. agnostic says:

    The whole meta-irony thing seems to be part of the demand for “immersive worlds” that Barken brought up. 3D glasses, abandoning anamorphic lenses and their shallow focus, infinite focus in CGI worlds, surround sound, and all the other things that geeks from the 1950s would’ve found really neat.

    How else to draw the audience in, beyond sense experience? How about making out-of-place pop culture references or using out-of-place slang? Shrek asking the donkey if he will friend him on Facebook, or whatever it actually was. A medieval maiden asking, “Seriously? Seriously?” a la 21st-century brats.

    (Note to spergs: not to make the audience understand what they’re saying — “So you object to them speaking modern rather than Middle English??!?!??!!” — but drawing attention to and emphasizing how anachronistic the phrase or phrasing was, for lame yuk-yuk value.)

    Slightly higher up the cultural pyramid, we have all these self-aware comments from characters. When they make comments directly to us (“breaking the fourth wall”), that’s like 3D, the movie world popping out into our own. The meta-irony thing is like a reverse-3D — putting the analytical thoughts of the audience into the mouths of the characters themselves. “They said what I was just thinking!” Yuk yuk!

    Psychometricians have shown that it requires more brainpower to do a cognitive task backwards than forwards. That’s all this meta-irony business amounts to — the smug three-digit IQ person’s riff on the lowbrow schtick of Facebook-in-Shrek.

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    • It’s become part of the general texture of life these days. So much so that young people seem completely taken aback if/when someone says what he means simply and straightforwardly. Whoa, how to process that, man?

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  6. The creative act of LvT that I most admire: he decided to make hardcore porn films.

    It’s a shame that never worked out. I’d have been more interested in those projects than his unwatchable dramatic films. At least there’d be no pretense to puerile, juvenile “philosophy”, whatever it is on any given day. I rarely develop enough emotional interest in a LvT film to warrant being outraged: that would be giving it weightiness and gravitas it isn’t worthy of. Perhaps that’s why you (and the older audience members you describe), simply couldn’t be bothered walking out: you recognized the film’s manipulativeness for what it was, undeserving of mental and emotional engagement.

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    • For all its shock effects and big themes, it just didn’t have a lot of bite. But von Trier clearly has some talent as well as (god knows) a lot of ambition. So what’s up with that? Has he ever threatened to direct an opera, do you know?

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      • I don’t know if he’s ever been asked, but it would IMO be a terrible idea. Nothing is worse than opera directors with “concepts” that either clash with or, worse, contradict the piece. It’s an act of sabotage. Which is not to say that I’m opposed to updated/modern productions or clever ideas: they just have to work with what’s already there. You just know that LvT would be compelled to shoehorn his square “vision” into the round framework of the opera, no matter the violence to sense or logic it might cause.

        TL;DR
        Opera plots don’t need to be made any more nonsensical than they already are. 😉

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  7. James says:

    I have been meaning to see Nymphomaniac, and my enthusiasm for seeing it has diminished after reading this entry.

    I agree with you about Enter the Void … that is a powerful movie. I had never heard of it, nor of Gaspar Noe, when I saw it on cable late one night, and the combination of having stumbled upon it, and its undeniable power as a piece of art and film, and my watching it in the middle of the night, really packed a punch for me like few other movies have.

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    • Heavens, don’t let my reservations get in the way of you seeing a movie you’re curious about. Eager to hear how you react in any case. Have caught up with Noé’s “Irreversible,” by the way? Very powerful stuff.

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  8. PrytaneumFreeFood says:

    Trier’s late-in-life discovery of the non-paternity (biological that is) of his father has always seemed to me one of the more difficult challenges this world presents to a man/woman. I don’t know enough about his work to make any bold claims or analysis — more an expression of sympathy for the man than about his work. Realize, unapologetically, that’s something of a non-sequitur. Scold away if you must.

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    • For all I know I’d like the guy tremendously if I met him and got to know him. Wish I liked his movies better, but what the hell. The thing with his dad/not-dad must have been huge for him to go thru.

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