"Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1": Fishers of Men, Meaning

By Lowry PresslyMarch 21, 2014

"Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1": Fishers of Men, Meaning

NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 1, the first installment of Lars von Trier’s latest feature film, opens with one of the director’s characteristic overtures. The screen stays dark for what feels like a long time, though it is probably no more than a minute or two, forcing the viewer to focus on the auditory phenomena: ambient sounds of wind and rain, of creaking metal and passing trains, and above all, a chorus of water dripping, splashing, sputtering, drumming on trashcans. Soon the visual portion of the film opens onto an abandoned industrial quarter: lingering shots of dimly lit alleyways of brick and stone, the incongruous combination of lightly falling snow and torrents of water pouring off rusted eaves, the groaning and clinking of some vaguely industrial accouterments of commerce. After some time, we catch sight of humanity. The film’s protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lies supine in an alleyway — first we see her bloodied and inert hand, later the rest of her. Though the imaginary quarter constructed by this montage seems almost post-industrial — an impression reinforced by the abrupt introduction of the thundering Rammstein track “Führe mich” — it recalls in its dereliction an era both bygone and imminent, a time and place that could just as easily be Manchester or Paris during the industrial revolution as Guangzhou or Newark an hour from now. 

Perhaps I saw turn-of-the-nineteenth century France reflected in the images of abandoned industry because von Trier’s film, or at least its structure, method, and themes, pays homage to that period’s most infamous figure: Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, better known by his honorific, the Marquis de Sade. von Trier is an avowed aficionado of the Marquis’s works. Indeed, much of von Trier’s meticulously crafted public image leads one to suspect that he’s building up to a locked-away apotheosis similar to the patron saint of transgression. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 reflects the influence of the Marquis’s work more than any of von Trier’s films to date — a fact of no small importance for a director so often accused of sadism. Like Sade’s novel Justine, the film is framed by a young woman rescued (in this case by the articulate, if somewhat, affectless pensioner Seligman, played by von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgård) and consists in the telling of her painful story to her interlocutor via flashbacks. 

The tale of how Joe came to be in that phantasmagoric alleyway where Seligman found her unconscious and bloodied, is, of course, the story of her sexual history — what else in a film called Nymphomaniac? And her flashbacks are interspersed with what is supposed to be a philosophical dialogue on ... well, it’s not exactly clear, or at least not as clear as von Trier seems to think it is (more on this below). And though Joe is no Justine — after whom von Trier named Kirsten Dunst’s character in 2011’s Melancholia — neither is she the unrepentant heroine of Juliette. Rather, she is a hybrid: a woman driven by deep and not entirely comprehended desires — for identity, transcendence, martyrdom, all of which von Trier typically registers as feminine — in conflict with equally incomprehensible social norms.

It’s funny — and quite telling — that now that von Trier has made an unmistakably Sadean film, the majority of critical attention is focused not on the sadistic but on the allegedly pornographic aspects of the film. Though there is plenty of sex in Nymphomaniac — just not as much in the pared down version distributed here in the US as many expected or hoped for — as in the more transgressive works of Sade, the site of the film’s eroticism is in its discourse, in the telling of the story and not intermittent montages of T&A. Thus, from Juliette: “You have killed me with voluptuousness. Let’s sit down and discuss.” If he could hear the film press titter, surely the Marquis would be rolling (with mordant laughter) in his grave. And given that he was given a full Christian burial against his express wishes, that’s probably not all he’d be doing.


The term “nymphomania” comes to us (or persists, rather) as the result of a Victorian renaming of an ancient construction of female sexuality as psychopathology, which survived even as far as a few editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (It was finally abandoned in 1987.) As a diagnosis, nymphomania was applied to displays of female sexuality that were considered “excessive,” which could mean anything from the harboring of sexual fantasies to being attracted to men other than one’s husband. Like most diagnoses that infer a disfigurement of the subject from observations of her behavior, it tells us more about the society that came up with it than about nymphomaniacs themselves. Nymphomania reminds us that what we recognize as deviant in others unsettles us. We often find it easier, or at least psychologically safer, to posit a pathological source for the behavior rather than confront it in ourselves. 

The social construction of mental illness in general and nymphomania in particular has been well documented and criticized — not least by Sade himself, here uncomfortably in bed, so to speak, with contemporary feminist social theorists. Moreover, the connection between femininity, desire, and the conventionality of madness marks the terrain where von Trier seems to be most comfortable as a filmmaker. One need look no further than the ordeals of his “Gold Heart” heroines: Bess (1996’s Breaking the Waves) Selma (2000’s Dancer in the Dark), and Karen (1998’s The Idiots). But the focus of Breaking the Waves was not on Bess’s harsh Presbyterian milieu, exactly, but rather on the ways it had, much like a retrovirus, become integrated into what she might call her self. (Recall Bess’s sublimely unsettling dialogues with God in which the Almighty at once speaks in the voice of Bess and doesn’t.) In the same way, the focus of Nymphomaniac is on the manifestations of Joe’s personal and internal struggle and not the world that gives it a name. Like Sade, what interests von Trier most is not the source of a given pathology — be it virtue or nymphomania — but what it can do to the people who carry it (and whom it carries). 

Though von Trier’s representatives have denied that Nymphomaniac fills out his “Depression Trilogy” (which would include Melancholia and 2009’s Antichrist), Nymphomaniac’s relationship to Melancholia is notable, and not just in its exploration of an anachronistic psychopathological diagnosis. (Here I’d be tempted to make the joke supposing that his next film be called Hysteria if that weren’t already a pretty accurate working title for at least a half dozen films he’s already made.) Von Trier does indeed posit an origin for Joe’s behavior in something like depression or melancholia, though I would hesitate to put so fine a point on her condition. In one of the episodes that flashes furthest back in time, Joe tells Seligman of an occasion when she was seven and being prepped for surgery and she looked over to where the doorway to the operating room, beyond which a change was promised, stood open. The open door seemed to her like an insuperable barrier. As shots of young Joe lying languid on a gurney give way to gorgeous images of stars and particolored nebulae, she says to Seligman, “It was as if I was completely alone in the universe, as if my whole body was filled with loneliness and tears.” With this unnecessary bit of backstory, von Trier seems to ally himself with those who understand — which is to say, construct — excessive female sexuality as stemming from some need. In other words, when Joe later says to Jerôme (Shia Labeouf), “Fill all my holes,” we are meant to take her statement as both a literal imperative of sexual stagecraft and a metaphorical gloss on the sources and demands of her nymphomania. Women do not get off easily in von Trier’s movies, however, and Joe is no exception. The first volume ends during this liaison with Jerôme when Joe abruptly loses sensation in her sexual organs, thus depriving her of her one means of transcendence. (And if we missed the gravity of this moment for Joe, von Trier punctuates her weeping with a reprise of the crushing yet irresistible inertia of “Führe mich.”)

This is not to say that the notoriously gloomy Dane has made a 4.5-hour movie about depression. von Trier’s pathology is, as ever, something deeper, something common and dreadful, like the silence and the fearful doubt at the heart of the questions: What is it to be a person? and, What does it take to make (and unmake) an identity? And in keeping with his previous work, Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 doesn’t so much answer those questions as dwell within the panic that they can instill in a certain kind of hyperconscious person (typically embodied by the spectator von Trier’s films presuppose) and on the gestures of disfigurement it takes to answer them (typically enacted by his heroines). 

It seems that a film about sex would be the perfect vehicle for such an exercise, given the way these questions can lead to paralysis and the desire to cast off the vertiginous responsibilities of autonomy. (Aptly, the movie’s theme song translates as something between “guide me” and “rule me.”) Sex, in all its endlessly surprising variations, has long been considered to be the archetypal abdication of autonomy. Sex offers, on the one hand, the temporary abatement of the demands of the self and other in their union; on the other it’s enslavement masquerading as freedom and heteronomy sold as enlightenment. In any case, I do not think I was alone in looking forward to von Trier’s treatment of this dialectic, nor do I think that I was alone in being disappointed with what Volume 1 offered on that score. This letdown, however, just might be the film’s saving grace. 


I wonder how many viewers of Volume 1 were surprised that it wasn’t more pornographic. I know I was, and so were the handful of others with whom I spoke about the film, though I can’t say anyone was disappointed. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of sex, but rather that it’s not the same kind of thing that pornography puts up on the screen. Crudely, the difference is between films or photographs of sex and those that are about sex. Whereas the depictions of sexual congress marketed and sold as pornography generally strive for naturalism, despite their notoriously flimsy storylines and mise-en-scène, von Trier’s film, like Sade’s novels, is decidedly not naturalistic. This is apparent everywhere, from his heavy use of montage and voice-over to his return to the Brechtian elements of verfremdungseffekt (“alienation effect”) so prevalent in Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005). The most spectacularly unnatural element of the film, however, is the dialogue of Seligman and Joe’s frame narrative.

The character of Seligman (logos to Joe’s eros) is maddening in his shallow, quasi-philosophic digressions. For instance, when Joe so much as mentions the numbers three and five, Seligman interrupts her, as if he cannot help himself (here the correct phrasing would certainly be “he ejaculates,” but I’m trying not to confuse those who haven’t yet seen the film). “Those are Fibonacci numbers,” he blurts, apropos of nothing. I wonder if she had begun to count — as in 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... all numbers in “the Fibonacci sequence” — he would have been similarly thunderstruck by the same revelation about the deep truths of the universe. The Fibonacci sequence is not the only clue to the film’s deeper goings on that Seligman throws at our feet. Aside from the golden ratio, he also wanders into Bach (and the mathematical conspiracy theories attendant on his music), polyphony, the tritone (ominously known as “the devil’s interval”), Poe, Pythagoras, D.T., and, most notoriously, fly-fishing, all delivered with such a flat affect and intellectual superficiality that it seems Seligman is reading the introductory paragraphs of some Wikipedia entries he has selected in the hopes of lending the proceedings some off-the-rack, scattershot profundity (oh, and don’t forget Palestrina; how’s that for gravitas!). 

In the character of Seligman, it is as if von Trier has arranged a starscape of potential meanings and has left it up to the viewer to arrange the constellations of significance for himself. After a few minutes and a few iterations into this exercise, however, one realizes that any constellation one fixes on the film is both arbitrary and profoundly unsatisfying. It’s like Justine from Melancholia (who is often caught looking up at the stars, the brightest of which inaugurates the film by destroying the planet and thereby imbuing the lame and the venal with a kind of significance) or the young, pre-op Joe, looking up into the night sky and making sense of her life by drawing lines between the stars. It’s an absurd and onanistic gesture. It is in this gesture, however, that the failure of Von Trier’s script to rise even to the philosophical heights of Sade’s novels finds its redemption. 

If the film is, ultimately, remarkably shallow as an investigation of sex and human connection, as a work of art it is perhaps more successful than Sade’s novels, since in its failure it demonstrates the grand futility of its own enterprise. Just as Joe’s cruising for sex results not in any kind of enlightenment but rather in literal senselessness, likewise does von Trier’s cruising for meaning in the dialogue between Joe and Seligman leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied. In this sense, Nymphomaniac succeeds as a work of art insofar as it fails to live up to the terms it sets for itself as a film, which is not an insignificant extent. 


So, if the ideas of von Trier’s film are left by the wayside — in the gutter, as it were — what remains? Well, the sex, of course. I will have more to say about this in my review of Volume 2, but in the space that’s left to me I’d like to highlight at least one way in which the experience of Nymphomaniac is, if imperfect filmmaking, a perfect extension of von Trier’s oeuvre and of a piece with his thematic obsessions with spectatorship and the life-giving tension between human freedom and amor fati

To watch sex on screen is to have the film shift from the third-person, conventional mode of film and theatre to a second person address. Like the opening voiceover in Europa (1991), which orients the viewer in the film with the rhetorical techniques of hypnotism, the portrayal of sex on film addresses the viewer directly and implicates and entangles her in the action on screen. Whereas the characters in a film may be interacting with one another in a world all their own, sex on screen breaks the fourth wall and speaks to us — it makes something latent in the viewer (not the film itself) explicit. This we find unnerving, if not downright frightening. (Think of the sound of a whole movie theatre audience swallowing at once when the action on screen gets steamy ... or was it just you, was it merely an effect of your suddenly heightened self-consciousness?) 

Admittedly, the second-person address of sex on screen is undercut by the intervention of technique in the US release of Volume 1 — particularly that of montage, which, by fragmenting the action gives the mind only enough time to register the facts on the screen before moving on, thereby short-circuiting reflection or confrontation. Nevertheless, Volume 1 is evidence of the unique power of the medium of film to fascinate, a power that few wield better than von Trier. Why so much critical giggling over the movie’s depiction of human sexuality, even months before the date of release? Why so much ado about Shia Labeouf’s penis if we were not worried about it somehow? 

I don’t want to get into the type of moralizing that often comes at this point in the argument because I think it misses the deeper point. Instead, I’ll close volume one of my review by suggesting one of the ways in which the quest for identity and the struggle for and against autonomy in this film relates to the experience of watching sex on screen. Images of sex unnerve us insofar as they force us to confront something in ourselves; they arouse a dark kind of self-knowledge in much the same way that they arouse us physically. Both blood flow and self-exposure are part of what makes up sexual arousal, and arousal as such, as Catharine MacKinnon recognized in a different context, is neither an emotion nor a thought: it is a behavior. Our confrontation with the sexual on screen demonstrates to us (in our own voice, as it were) the unrecognizable depths of our personality and the very real limits of our autonomy. Maybe it’s only here, at the edges of ourselves, that someone like Joe can come to know herself. Or maybe every hole is just an endless pit and a bottomless tunnel. 


Lowry Pressly is a writer of fiction and cultural criticism.

LARB Contributor

Lowry Pressly is a writer of essays, fiction, and cultural criticism. He is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.


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