THERE'S A FUNNY ONION video from a few years back called “Denmark Introduces Harrowing New Tourism Ads Directed by Lars von Trier.” Highlights include such putatively Trierian scenarios as an old man, naked and caked in dirt, crawling through mud and licking a soldier’s boot. “Von Trier’s ability to work with such disparate Danish themes as rape, incest, and the inherently evil nature of society make him a national treasure,” a government spokesperson explains. The joke depends on Trier’s reputation as the master of a certain kind of punishing horror, sadistic but serious-minded, and The Onion deftly apes the artsy-gothic visual idiom familiar from trailers for Trier’s Antichrist (2009), which was received as the pinnacle of his perverse power. As Wesley Morris put it of that film — in a quotation included in its official trailer — “I don’t think I breathed for the last half — out of shock, out of stress, out of disbelief.”
This is the prescribed response to what Moira Weigel, in a perceptive essay for n + 1, has called “sadomodernism,” an “unacknowledged movement” which, “[a]scetic in its forms and rigorously unpleasant in its subject matter […] suggest[s] that the only honest and decent thing for art to do is to inflict pain.” Weigel’s Exhibit A is the masterful scold Michael Haneke, who fits the bill very well; her other contemporary exemplar is, of course, Lars von Trier. But even in a film as painful as Antichrist, there’s something impish and hilarious that doesn’t quite meet the requirements of the category. Trier is a clown; Haneke, never. And it’s this smirking, clowning, unserious Trier that makes his nastiness so potent and, for his opponents, so dismaying.
The orthodox critique of Trier’s films holds him accountable not just for sadism but for misogyny. Out of malice and hatred, we are told, Trier subjects his heroines to unimaginable horrors, brutalizing their minds and mortifying their bodies for the ethically bankrupt satisfaction of his audiences. He makes exploitation films with philosophical pretensions. Maggie Nelson’s account of Breaking the Waves (1996) in her book The Art of Cruelty presents the most nuanced treatment of this position. Breaking the Waves is the story of the martyring of one Bess (Emily Watson), a naïve woman in an isolated community in the Scottish highlands. When her husband, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a foreigner employed on the oil-rigs just offshore, is paralyzed in a workplace accident, Bess agrees at Jan’s request to sleep with other men and tell him about it. This leads not only to the community’s disapproval but to Bess’s rape and violent death, figured as Christ-like self-sacrifice. Nelson’s skepticism is scathing:
[A]s the first wave of emotion lifted, I felt angry. Then I felt disgusted. Finally, I felt bored. The brutal emotional impact of Bess’s suffering aims to undo the viewer so profoundly that the film’s final message — that her sexual torture serves as a necessary, redemptive good for the male, and further, that there is sublimity to be found in such a scenario — almost slips down the gullet whole. But who can truly swallow it? Von Trier’s cruelty does not lie in any capacity to strip away cant or delusion, but rather in an ability to construct malignant, ultimately conventional fictions that masquerade as parables of profundity […] Or worse — and more likely — von Trier means to present these fictions with tongue so firmly in cheek that if we take them as parables of profundity, the joke may be on us. Von Trier imbues René Girard’s notion of sacrificial violence with an ironic, perhaps even a campy sensibility.
I quote Nelson at length because I think her analysis largely correct, although I dispute her verdict. Breaking the Waves is cruel in all of the ways she describes, but its “campy sensibility” should cue us in to the most interesting part of Trier’s project. He’s not only hoping to impose on us “malignant” fictions whose power we cannot deny. He’s camping them to suggest, precisely, that we shouldn’t let them “slide down the gullet whole.” This could, I suppose, be read as a conservative move, whereby retrograde mythologies are preserved under the sign of irony. But a more generous reading might find Trier resuscitating, with all requisite skepticism, the power of “conventional fictions” in order to find out how they work. The result is films whose dominant texture is one of impassioned ambivalence about their own force, an ambivalence that becomes part of their force.
Michael Haneke, too, likes to ironize the coercive power of narrative — think of the famous “rewind” scene in Funny Games — but his ultimate point is merely pedantic: Look how easily manipulated you are! As if we didn’t already know. Trier’s after something richer, something harder to reduce to a lesson. In Breaking the Waves, he wants to extract the deformed pith of sadomasochistic Christianity — that “conventional fiction” — and find out what it looks like when camped to within an inch of its life. Bess rhymes with Tess, and Breaking the Waves relies on an ambivalent voyeuristic moralism cousin to Thomas Hardy’s in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, whose sacrificed heroine is another degraded female Christ. But Trier takes pains to underscore the narrative’s absurdity, even as he executes it so effectively: “You wish the records of this court to state that in your medical opinion, the deceased was suffering from being good?” a medical examiner asks Bess’s physician after her death. Breaking the Waves is a sadistic Passion, but unlike Mel Gibson’s, it knows how perverse, how really flagrantly stupid and cruel, the underlying narrative is. Trier gives us our own myths at maximum potency, then reminds us how tawdry they are. It’s this knowingness, a kind of camp, which seems most to offend Trier’s detractors, who cannot forgive him for eliciting intense emotion even as he winks from the sidelines. The movie’s final scene — Bess’s assumption, accompanied by literal bells in heaven — is an instance of what Žižek, writing of David Lynch, has called “the ridiculous sublime.” For Trier, you can get your sublimity in this brazenly unsatisfactory way, or not at all.
With a characteristic mix of slyness and blatancy, Nymphomaniac (Volume 1) capitalizes on Trier’s reputation as a sadistic provocateur and on critical suspicion of his treatment of women. (Volume 2 is not available in the United States yet.) The movie opens with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) battered and unconscious in an alley, flakes of snow slowly falling. She is discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes her into his apartment and makes her tea. The narrative proper consists of Joe’s retrospective recounting of her life as a “nymphomaniac,” punctuated by Seligman’s questions and interpretations. These conversations frame extended flashbacks in which we see Joe’s youthful exploits in compulsively pursued pleasure. Stacey Martin plays the younger Joe with a compelling reserve, either icy or vulnerable depending on one’s angle of vision, but Gainsbourg’s voice-over narration defines the character. Seligman, secular liberal, is the mouthpiece of benevolent rationality, while Joe, self-loathing sex maniac, expresses a basically religious vision whose primary given is the human capacity for evil (though Joe denies that she is religious). This schematic is introduced right away, with Joe accounting for her predicament as a moral reckoning: “It’s my own fault. I’m just a bad human being.” Seligman: “I’ve never met a bad human being.” Seligman’s optimism — he insists on interpreting all of Joe’s behavior in a generous light — is a running joke, but Joe’s own masochistic self-loathing, her sense that she particularizes a generalized rottenness we may as well call original sin, is no more endorsed by the film (at least in Volume 1) than Seligman’s secular cheeriness. Joe and Seligman’s conversations are jokily Dostoevskian — this is a dialogue of ideas, in which the quarry is the question of sin in a rational age.
Other literary analogues suggest themselves. Joe’s face is bruised, pimpled, shadowed, as if, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, she is marked by the stigmata of her misdeeds. Like Wilde, Trier plays with the tropes of moralism in ways that are very hard to parse. But Nymphomaniac’s own announced debt isn’t to Wilde but to an earlier 19th-century aesthete, Poe. (If Bess rhymes with Tess, Joe rhymes with Poe — and Joe is, unlike Bess, importantly “author” of her own story.) Joe, having been taught by Seligman the story of Poe’s death from delirium tremens, announces in the key of confession: “I know what delirium is.” This introduces the film’s least comic segment, which treats Joe’s attendance on her father (Christian Slater), suffering in the hospital of an unrevealed illness. The camera brings us into the hospital as Seligman, in voice-over, recites the opening sentence of “The Fall of the House of Usher” (“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country…”). Poe’s curdled romanticism and bizarre black humor aren’t bad lenses through which to view Nymphomaniac.
As in Breaking the Waves, Nymphomaniac’s medical scenes are harrowing. Trier presents the special horror of the hospital, its orderly but insufficient containment of the grotesqueries of the failing body, with a gaze at once compassionate and disgusted. Stacy Martin is so thin you can see the skull beneath her face, and her watching over her dying father is as sinister as it is moving — she’s like an angel of death uncomfortably delegated to act as comforter. Joe, ever self-punishing, explains to Seligman that at her father’s deathbed the biological imperatives of nymphomania stalked her still:
Joe: “What happened to me then was very shameful.”
Seligman: “Shameful? I don’t understand.”
Joe: “I lubricated.”
Cut to a shot of Joe’s father, dead, framed by Joe’s parted legs in the foreground, a bead of moisture running down one thigh. But Seligman knows just how to think about all this: “I know you like to present yourself in a negative way and that you have this kind of dark bias that you’re worse than everyone else, but this story doesn’t add to that belief. It’s extremely common to react sexually in crisis.”
In recent movies, even Trier’s own trademarks become subject to the coruscations of irony. The documentary style — handheld camera, natural light — prominent in some of his earlier work (rooted in the strictures of the Dogme 95 group) hasn’t been completely abandoned in films like Melancholia or Antichrist, but it’s been oddly aestheticized: not so much hardened into a manner as made part of the joke. Bearer of no special integrity, the Dogme look is one more trick to exploit. In this connection, it’s interesting to think about the elaborate manipulations enabling Nymphomaniac’s pornographic scenes, in which “unsimulated” sex in fact results from the digital superimposition of the genitals of pornographic body-doubles onto the film’s stars. If real sex in arthouse films originally involved a bid for authenticity related to Dogme’s prohibitions on artifice, in Nymphomaniac Trier has utterly reversed the formula: the apparently authentic is in fact an illusion of the digital.
In Nymphomaniac, Trier’s irony finds a new formal mode: the movie has the sarcastic habit of visually illustrating its characters’ figures of speech. When Seligman compares Joe’s hunt for men to a fly-fisher’s for bass (“There’s a very clear parallel to fishing in a stream”), we get beautiful shots of rivers and fishing. When Joe compares a lover to a cat, Trier cuts to a hilarious shot of a big fat tabby against a blue background, like a cat-lover’s screensaver. Joe modifies her description (“But he was more than a cat — he was like some kind of jaguar, or leopard”), and Trier gives us a leopard basking in the sun. Like a lot of Trier, this is both funny and dumb. It’s bad manners for a filmmaker as formally accomplished as Trier to resort to these preposterous illustrations. Lars von Trier’s manners are not good.
Nymphomaniac’s most interesting moment of illustrative literalism occurs during Joe’s recollection of a childhood operation. Seven-year-old Joe, affectingly played by Maja Arsovic, lies terrified and alone in a hospital bed. “It was as if,” Gainsbourg narrates, “I had to pass through an impenetrable gate, all by myself …It was as if I was completely alone in the universe.” The word “universe” triggers a cut to a heavenly surround (Milky Way, stars abundant) straight out of a PBS special. One expects Neil deGrasse Tyson in voiceover. Instead, Joe continues: “As if my whole body was full of loneliness, and tears.” Then back to forlorn Joe, big-eyed and terrified and alone. One feels, in the white expanse of the hospital corridor, the child’s fear. But does the hokey cosmic imagery contribute to the effect? Or does it serve only to emphasize the hand of the director, a wise-guy at some mischievous remove from his own most powerful material?
Joe’s hospital scene has something in common with the most iconic moment in Melancholia, in which the depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst) lies sprawling and naked on a grassy hillside, her flesh receiving the sinister and beautiful light cast by a gigantic planet (“Melancholia”) on its collision course with Earth. Justine is succumbing to her illness, and Melancholia will obliterate the world. In both scenes, a psychological state is visually explicated with cosmic, and comic, literalism. “The cosmos” is insisted on as more than metaphor — not as a figure for existential terror, but as its literal condition. Both are descendents, perhaps, of the observatory scene in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause : “Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence!” Trier’s outlandish camp courts the sublime at its most banal. It succeeds.