Nymphomaniac’s promotional ads feature fashion photos of each cast member faking orgasm, making “the O face”—what used to be called “the ugly face”—as if to signify the common range of sexual climax. This is another of director Lars Von Trier‘s pranks, yet the iconic ads are misleading. Von Trier is less interested in exploring different kinds of sex than in cataloguing kinkiness through Joe (young Stacy Martin, adult Charlotte Gainsbourg), an adventuress who tells her story of sexual curiosity and compulsion to Seligman (Stellen Skarsgard), a shy, bookish bachelor who rescues her when he finds her screwed-out, beaten, and lying in an alley.
Joe’s narrative is sexual stream-of-consciousness from the moment of “discovering my cunt as a 2-year-old” to her teenage and adult practice with fore and aft penetration and numerous partners in marathon carnal encounters. Seligman, nosy and pseudo-intellectual, interrupts her with quasi-erudite digressions: egghead responses to Joe’s randy narrative plus analogies to fly-fishing, classical music, Fibonacci sequences, ancient religion, and modern blasphemies (“Mea vulva, mea maxima vulva” chants the anti-Catholic Joe).
Nyphomaniac shows in two parts just because. Joe’s frankness, her lack of shame, parallels Von Trier’s own mischief. (Besides, a five-hour epic would be unbearable). Instead of structuring a concise storyline, Von Trier strings together Joe’s adventures with impish audacity.
Vol. 1 is amusing due to its pornographic deadpan. At one point, for example, Joe muses, “If you put together all the cut foreskin in history, it would stretch to Mars and back.” Joe also recalls the nubile, insatiable heroines of Moll Flanders, The Story of O, and a contemporary satire of the legendary Terry Southern-Mason Hoffenberg novel, Candy (disastrously filmed in 1968 with an all-star cast including Marlon Brando and Richard Burton). Von Trier uses lesser luminaries (Shia LaBeouf, Willem Dafoe, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Uma Thurman, and Jamie Bell), hoping to shock viewers’ intellectual pretenses as well as their bourgeois prudery.
But Vol. 2 (including an episode exploiting black male stereotypes and a disquisition on the “N word”) stretches its jokes too far. Here’s where Joe explores sadomasochism, hoping to waken her deadened genitalia. Von Trier makes the ass-whipping, vaginal sores, and emotional-punishing literal—turning less mirthful, more violent and dubiously “serious.” Once again, his assault on our expectations of cinematic form becomes the ultimate obscenity.
A movie as hetero-centered as Nymphomaniac concerns gay viewers most in how it expresses attitudes toward sexual transgression. Vol 1’s key scene has Seligman question Joe’s selfish, rebellious attempt to “combat the love-fixated society.” Love doesn’t exist in Nymphomaniac, yet Seligman/Von Trier asks: “Why does the unsympathetic concept of sin survive in these days without religion? Is it self-hatred?” This not only questions Joe’s motives but impacts the misguided “radicalism” many gay filmmakers favor. Had Von Trier gone further in this direction, recognizing sexual compulsion as a drive toward higher love—Joe confesses, “I was an addict out of lust, not need”—Nymphomaniac might have addressed the eternal gay debate over recreational sex vs. fidelity (as in the subplot of Joe’s marriage and motherhood). Instead, these bifurcated features are bad jokes. Nymphomaniac embarrasses and titillates but teaches nothing.
Like Steve McQueen, whose fallacious “sex addiction” film Shame used gay sex (and Michael Fassbender’s dick-swinging), to define degradation and moral descent, Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac features same-sex coupling and Joe’s harassment of a gay male pedophile to make vague points mortifying sexuality: Joe sleeps with a girl (initiating a physically deformed bisexual youth) then shows pity to a closeted gay man. She gives a blowjob to gay actor-director Jean-Marc Barr whose cameo contributes the most prominent of the film’s assorted erections. Busted!
Sex almost always sells at the movies (as with the strangely homophobic Blue is the Warmest Color where lesbians are shown as ignorant and insensitive), yet Nymphomaniac has not set box-offices on fire. No wonder. It repeats the female degradation of Von Trier’s previous Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark and turns into an ugly, judgmental reprimand about unchecked sexual behavior. Its hetero and homo halves are neither arousing nor helpful. Von Trier should learn: Being edgy is not the same as edging.