Nymphomaniac is Five Hours of Lars von Trier Trying to Offend You: Should You See It?

Nymphomaniac poster

Jonathan May

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Nymphomaniac?

“Beneath the gazes, beneath the hands, beneath the sexes that defiled her, the whips that rent her, she lost herself in a delirious absence from herself which restored her to love and, perhaps, brought her to the edge of death.” —from The Story of O

Parenthesis in Greek means ‘put in beside’ so it’s only fitting that the title of Lars von Trier’s latest film includes an empty set (it’s stylized as “Nymph()maniac“), a nothing story inside a nothing story. The story operates on the frame tale level; that is, our protagonist Joe relates her tale of sexual deviance from childhood forward to the eager ears of Seligman, an older male virgin (which later becomes important) after he finds her in an alleyway, obviously beaten up.

The main problem with the film is that Joe is constantly interrupted in her telling by Seligman, an obsequious listener if there ever was one. The film must center safely back around to its frame at the end, which deflates what’s at stake for the viewer. And center around it does; this was the moment of unexpectedness though. What transpires between Joe and Seligman in those final moments completely derails the film and its message, but I will not be the one to spoil it for the reader.

What I will take umbrage with is the fact that the more “salacious” aspects of the film (the erect penises, the S&M, the graphicness of the presentation, Joe screaming “Fill all my holes”) are not nearly as “offending” (though I’m very hesitant to use this word) as the moral statements made by the director through his characters. It becomes very obvious when Joe is talking and when Lars von Trier is talking through Joe. Von Trier all but preaches about how we should not silence aspects of our vocabulary for fear that we silence ourselves; but then he launches, through Joe, into a tirade about how pedophilia is like any other sexuality and how the 96% of pedophiles who don’t act on their urges should be “given a medal” for bravely squelching their desires. I take huge insult to these claims. Pedophilia is learned behavior, not innate. Not acting on desire or lust is not commensurate to bravery. Once again, von Trier sacrifices in terms of actual filmic development to focus on his status as a provocateur. Unfortunately this game is tired and boring, especially coming in the middle of a combined five-hour romp. I feel like I was constantly being prodded into offense; luckily for me, I’m offended by very little. But I still felt like the whole story amounts to nothing more than a way for von Trier to poke a stick at his audience. What he loses in this, of course, is the sincerity of Joe and her story. She unapologetically owns her sexuality at several points throughout the film. To have her become nothing more than a soapbox is typical of von Trier’s treatment of women.

Should you see it?

If you want original story, see the film Salo by Pasolini or read its precursor, The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. Or you can read The Story of O by Pauline Reage. If it’s a good Lars von Trier movie you want to see, try Melancolia or Dancer in the Dark. But you can safely pass on Nymphomaniac.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

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