“For me, love was just lust with jealousy added. Everything else was total nonsense.” – Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg)

Challenging his audience emotionally and psychologically, von Trier’s oeuvre has focused predominantly on female characters suffering incredible social duress. The director is well known for intimidating his actors on the film set: Björk and Nicole Kidman (who worked with him on Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003) respectively) described their collaboration as a punishing experience. However, despite controversy over accusations of misogyny and subjecting his characters on screen (not to mention the actresses who play them) to his artistic and narrative tyranny, he has helped his female leads deliver remarkable performances. Like the women who dominate, shape and haunt the films from such masters of melodrama as Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, von Trier pushes his female characters to the brink of social horror, where they have been subjected to rape, violence and public humiliation.

However, it would be a mistake to regard their misfortune simply as a source of sadistic pleasure for the filmmaker. Von Trier is working in an extremely heightened form of melodrama, where the female character’s misery is often generated – directly or indirectly – by misguided and controlling men. The male characters largely represent the brutality of the world, personifying reason, authority and domination, while the women are the embodiment of sacrifice, suffering and the battle with patriarchy. Such representations have, unsurprisingly, often been criticised for implicitly denying women any subjectivity or creative agency of their own, yet von Trier has recently offered a galvanising first taste of rebellion and imaginative freedom in his later female protagonists, as represented by ‘She’ (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in Antichrist (2009), Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in Melancholia (2011) and Nymphomaniac’s (2013) (Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin)1 who are all characterised by their refusal to conform to what society considers the feminine ideal. However, whereas female sexuality is attached to extreme guilt and anxiety in Antichrist,in Melancholia and Nymphomaniac von Trier plunges us into contextually richer terrain, where female desire and despair is complicated not only by love, but also by a deep need for autonomy and pride. In Melancholia, the depressive Justine – who happily awaits the apocalypse – is the only character in the film who remains in control. She not only derails patriarchy and convention by sabotaging her own wedding, but also comes out on top in the face of a chaotic cosmic disaster. In Nymphomaniac, Joe rejects the idea of “sex addiction” in an all-woman support group, and proudly declares herself a “nymphomaniac.” It is who she is; not a disease or disorder. This is therefore not a redemption narrative or a trauma narrative: on the contrary, Joe chooses, demands, and arranges, and sex is its own reward. In this way, the idea of women as active participants in – and liberated beneficiaries of – von Trier’s work is worthy of further exploration. However, it is also imperative to consider how Nymphomaniac offers up a methodical analysis of patriarchal control, as a “system” that Joe cannot simply fuck her way out of.

Nymphomaniac

That said, von Trier’s reluctance to cast Joe as both adult and child as helpless victims provides the metaphor for his own view of the collaborative artistic process, cautioning the viewer not to attribute simple notions of victimhood to Joe’s character. Like Antichrist and Melancholia, Nymphomaniac steadfastly refrains from making any crude moral judgement about the female protagonists’ dilemma and actions. Certainly, one of the aspects that makes these women so problematic is that they are complex, unlike von Trier’s prior virtuous heroines. They are real people, writhing masses of contradictions. By revealing ambivalent images and ideas around motherhood and the figure of the mother, these films dare to ask and encourage debate around controversial issues regarding maternal power and desire. By dismantling these taboos, these films deftly communicate an existential anxiety over what constitutes the place of the mother in both the family and society more broadly. In this light, von Trier’s ‘Depression Trilogy’ – Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac2 should be regarded as a complex net of sometimes contradictory meanings that form the foundations of the representation of women within cinema, and the anxieties connected to these representations. These films also skilfully consider the possibility of women abolishing the logic of gender and entering history, which is Joe’s incentive in her devising a vow of celibacy in the penultimate frame.

While Volume I covers Joe’s childhood and youthful erotic experiences with playful, witty verve, Volume II descends into darker, more painful territory as Joe’s desires come up against the crushing pressures and restraining demands of adult life. Nymphomaniac is a film in which fucking consumes, dominates, annihilates, in which so-called perversity is the norm. Though the title itself is a provocation, a tease, a come-on, it is also an indication that the film is attempting to have things both ways. On the one hand, sex in its own right – casual sex, sex with “no strings attached” – is seen from the outset as desirable. Moreover, the promise of sex is unquestionably the film’s major selling point. Yet for all the hedonistic libertinism on display, a different message is at least in theory built into the plot structure. While von Trier gleefully baits his hook with the promise of lewd spectacle, he reels us in instead to a philosophical sermon, addressing the fear and desire of love, the voraciousness of human appetites, the interconnectedness of history, art and science and the quest for personal gratification, even when society disapproves.

Set in a strange, exaggerated Britain, and eschewing the precisely framed, almost painterly compositions that distinguished Melancholia and Antichrist, von Trier pursues – through jagged close-ups and stolen moments – a Dogme 95 style aesthetic. However, while the film contains hard-core scenes (using a combination of prosthetic genitals and porn actors serving as body doubles) they are all usually observed with an anthropological eye. None of it is erotic, and the overwhelming sense of grey, existential gloom admits little joy into the relationships on screen. Walking the thin line between bitter and sweet, between understated tragic situations and moments of comic relief (including a minute-long montage of full-frontal flaccid penises), vaginas, breasts and buttocks are shown in a variety of sex acts, but also in sickness and in pain. Many of the film’s sequences are typical of von Trier, who can rarely resist cutting away from the dramatic meat of a scene to make a visual joke or directorial interjection. All this adds to a shifting, decentered perspective on one character and her world, as she attempts to understand (and perhaps eventually reconcile) the mechanical and emotional factors bound up in sex. Yet von Trier is sincere in his exploration of Joe’s condition, where all the pounding, thrusting and grinding inevitably adds up to an unspoken awareness of the hollowness at the center of humanity, and the doomed probabilities, of not just connection, but feeling itself.

The Girl in the Alley: Meeting Joe

With a run time of just under four hours and told in eight chapters,3 Nymphomaniac starts near the story’s ending, where in a hypnotic opening sequence, featuring the drum of rain on tin roofs, an elderly scholar named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds Joe (Gainsbourg) lying in an alley, battered and bruised. She refuses medical attention so he takes her back to his ascetic bachelor apartment, puts her in his pajamas and tucks her into his monk-like bed with a cup of tea. As she recuperates, Joe recounts for Seligman her lengthy and adventurous sexual history, from “discovering her cunt at age two” – the phrase cuts the air early on – to how she came to be abandoned in the alley on the night he found her. Ambivalent, exhausted, but resigned, she insists that her exploits are reprehensible: “I’ve consciously hurt others for the sake of my own satisfaction” she declares. However, as if to justify and honour her choices, for every confession Joe makes to Seligman – who has had very little experience of life, except through books – he enthusiastically analogises each episode with curious digressions: on Fibonacci numbers, the compositions of Bach, the sport of angling and so forth, establishing connections between Joe’s experiences on the one hand and the history of human thought on the other. Despite Seligman’s best efforts to prompt Joe along with his cheerful commentary on her own self-hatred however, it becomes progressively more difficult to retain comparable positivity between the trampled flesh of her female experience and his cold-blooded male rationality.

Nymphomaniac

In addition to her adverse feelings about herself, Joe admits to having “loneliness as a constant companion.” Having never connected with her aloof and envious mother (“She was what you call a cold bitch”), we witness in an early flashback, the close relationship she had with her beloved father (Christian Slater) and his love of nature which he passes on to Joe. In the present day, a conversation with Seligman about Edgar Allan Poe and his death from delirium tremens reminds Joe of the last time she saw her sick father in hospital. Here, in one of the film’s more harrowing sequences, she is a firsthand witness as he deteriorates into fits of violent spasms, paranoid delusions and screams for his wife. As he lies dead on a hospital bed – framed between his daughter’s parted legs – a drip runs down her inner thigh. This episode reveals further Joe’s unquenchable feelings of arousal, which are tangled up with her fear of mortality, emotions directed towards her one true soul mate. This moment, as much for its crudity as for its intimacy, could fall into morbidity, but in von Trier’s hands it attains that balance between shame and shamelessness. Joe’s father’s death triggers the beginning of her descent into depression.

Through episodic flashback, Volume 1 follows Joe’s early years in the 1970s, from a sexually inquisitive child at 12 experiencing a quasi-orgasmic epiphany, to a promiscuous adolescent teenager, where she is depicted as gleefully anarchic. “If I ask you to take my virginity, would that be a problem?” she asks greasy biker Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who will re-enter her life twice more over the following decades. This first experience of sex is a letdown, as Jerôme’s two-hole deflowering causes her pain, and is conducted from his perspective in a business-like manner, with three quick thrusts into her vagina, before she’s flipped over for a further five in her anus. From here on, Joe becomes a sexual force, and the story jumps to Joe and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) seducing men for sport, where in an extended flashback, the girls compete for the most sexual encounters on a single train ride. The prize: a bag of chocolates. After having sex in a toilet with several of the men she comes across, Joe wins by performing a blow job on a married man in a first class car. In a later scene, we see this same group of young girls forming a secret teenage cult – “The Little Flock” – where they make a pact to rebel against a “love-fixated” society and to never sleep with the same man twice. But Joe’s friend B eventually betrays Joe’s trust by falling for someone: “The secret ingredient of sex is love,” B whispers to Joe at one of their club meetings. And with that, the strictly unsentimental Joe takes off to seek her sexual thrills elsewhere. Later, in a series of non-chronological vignettes, we watch Joe successfully organising her sex life to evade attachments. Seeing as many as eight sexual partners in any given night, she devises a form of systematic dating that uses a dice to determine how she will treat each man. Hence, by objectifying her suitors and denying them individuality, this serves to satisfy her need to be in control, and to prove to herself that emotions are a sign of weakness. Von Trier makes it clear that Joe’s journey is not about pleasure: it is about power.

Nymphomaniac

Sex, Submission and “The System”

The most consistent moments in the film entail Joe’s on-again/off-again relationship with Jerôme, who after taking her virginity later becomes her boss and then her first actual love, which leads to any number of complications. Throughout the film, Jerôme is essentially characterised as cold, vain and indifferent. However, he is initially represented as a source of endless confounding mystery to Joe, a somewhat emotionally repressed figure – like herself – and the only man aside from her father she has truly loved.  Towards the end of Volume 1, after a brief spell apart, Joe finds that she has fallen in love with Jerôme, helplessly, despite desperately wanting otherwise. Yet during one particular romantic liaison, she suddenly loses all feeling, and despite repeated, progressively violent attempts to achieve an orgasm, fails to. As a consequence, she becomes lax about birth control during that period, and conceives a child. Jerôme soon tiresomely identifies Joe as a “tiger” and admits that he is unable to satisfy her. Regaining her capacity for orgasm will become the focus of the film’s second half, which now veers into far darker territory as Joe proceeds to embark on a series of misadventures that drag her deeper into the world of anonymous sex, self-objectification and brutal sadomasochism. Pleasure will soon be replaced by pain, satisfaction by dissatisfaction.

Nymphomaniac’s sophisticated consideration of sex comes to bear most fully in what is ostensibly the film’s most remarkable segment. In her desperate search to salvage her lost orgasm, Joe becomes a willing participant in a dispassionate, sadomasochist relationship with an underground BDSM specialist, K (Jamie Bell), who brutalises her in an austere office dungeon. K sets out the rules to Joe bluntly: He will not have sex with her, and there will be no safe words while he is in charge. However, he quickly becomes one of the more intriguing and believable of Joe’s relationships. After a series of implied negotiations, K ties Joe up to a sofa, props her rump up in the air and proceeds to administer beatings. Though there is no sex between K and Joe – aside from when he pushes his fingers inside her – the palpable sexual excitement is in stark contrast to the blandness of the sex scenes that opened the film. As he whips her unmercifully on the backside until she bleeds, Joe’s wounds take on an erotic, physical intensity. They suggest a warm liquid interior that is alive and tingling, filling the void created by the lack of emotional release in sex. The sequence is ghastly and sensual, impeccably crafted, dirty-minded and not at all offensive for allowing Joe to enjoy pain. This is the true titillation, the dark heart of Nymphomaniac laid literally bare. However, before long, Joe’s relationship with K becomes conflicted between his therapeutic distance and her embodied need for fulfilment, and when she starts to experience genuine feelings for him, her attempts to initiate sex are met with rejection. When she grabs at his crotch, and gasps, “I want your cock,” K is not interested. Eventually, Joe cannot give herself fully to K, nor can she control him sexually the way she has with other men. As she asserts: “The system was the overriding factor with K.”

Nymphomaniac

Consequently, as illustrated in these scenes, there is no question that the male characters are ruthlessly in command of the situation. Arguably, Nymphomaniac makes clear that sex does not take place in a vacuum, sealed off from external influences; it can (and does) emulate inescapable systems of power and dominance Although she constructs her personal, erotic mythology in disregard of any man’s opinion, and is seen to reevaluate her ethical framework to fit them in, Joe cannot simply fuck her way to freedom. Neither valid consent, nor Joe taking possession of her own sexuality, can break that order. For von Trier, heterosexual sex under the regime of patriarchy will always be oppressive.

Ambivalent Maternity: Joe, Jerôme and the Absent Mother

Like Antichrist, Nymphomaniac’s power to unsettle its audience also derives from its focus on the taboo subject of ambivalent maternity. At the start of Nymphomaniac’s second half, Joe recalls her uneasy existence as a family woman, describing the birth of her son Marcel, and her marriage to Jerôme as the domestic cage that annihilated all desire to the point where Jerôme insists she seek sexual pleasure elsewhere; a bold decision that quickly proves disastrous. In a pivotal scene, Joe abandons Marcel in a moment of overwhelming desire to be beaten by K. Here, Joe’s character is essentially reprising the central maternal neglect/sexual obsession set piece from Antichrist, as von Trier revisits the age-old mother/whore dichotomy. Joe is shown to be an irresponsible mother by sacrificing her own child’s safety to satisfy her own fetishistic sexual needs. After Joe steals away for her session – here von Trier riffs on the macabre shot of innocent freefall that opens Antichrist – we watch helplessly as their toddler is about to tumble from their balcony into the snowy night. However, moments later, Jerôme enters the house and rescues him in time. Later that night, outraged at Joe’s neglect, Jerôme forces her to choose between her child and K, giving her the ultimatum that if she walks out, she can say farewell to her family forever. Devastated, Joe picks the latter, and after receiving an especially brutal beating from K with a cat o’ nine tails – which finally brings back her orgasm – Joe walks out on Jerôme and Marcel and makes a beeline for social exile.

Nymphomaniac

This event illustrates a fundamental shift in the film’s narrative, which in retrospect explains Joe’s plight: she has placed herself beyond the pale, to find herself and her freedom, in order to avoid the marriage and childrearing that are expected of her. Arguably at issue here is the question of women’s power: the absolute power of the mother over the survival of an infant which is represented here as something to fear. In the slim genre of films about ambivalent maternity, there is of course the afterbirth saga of Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), where the idea of a ‘good’ mother who is protective, selfless, and embraces motherhood without resentments is both depicted and troubled in its female protagonist, Eva (Tilda Swinton). Similar to Antichrist’s ‘She’ and Nymphomaniac’s Joe, Eva is constructed as a well-educated, white, middleclass woman, but behind her good intentions hides an extreme frustration with her ‘mother’ status. The difference in Nymphomaniac is that the child is knowingly and consciously abandoned by his mother. Significantly, these films offer up an alternative narrative of motherhood, spelling out fears and/or disappointments that the women have secretly harboured, that having children was not all it was cut out to be. Moreover, these films boldly suggest that mothers do not always bond with their children and not everyone is programmed to be a parent. These films offer strong feminist themes that cannot be ignored, presenting a microcosm of power struggles. They engage controversial issues surrounding women’s desires and parental responsibility in a culture imbued with excessive expectations of maternity, and the chauvinistic assumption of a mother’s obligation to love her child. Far from being unwilling to love her son however, Joe tells Seligman that the conditions for the possibility of love were not present when she looked into Marcel’s eyes. She simply perceived that she was not loved back.

“I Love My Cunt”: Joe, P and the Rejection of Therapy

Once Joe has left the nuclear family for good, she embraces her status as a societal outsider, and turns to organised crime by utilising her extensive knowledge of men, sex and sadomasochism. Having returned to her old ways of sleeping with men at will, her boss L (Willem Dafoe), summons her into his office and warns her about her behavior, demanding she attend sex addiction therapy under the threat of losing her current job as a debt collector and any future jobs she may take. At one meeting, Joe realises the hypocrisy of the sessions and furiously rejects them by declaring, “I love my cunt and my filthy dirty lust.” She tells the group proudly that the empathy she claims “is a lie. Because all you are is society’s morality police whose duty is to erase my obscenity from the surface of the earth, so that the bourgeoisie won’t feel sick.” Her drive is not a disease, she asserts, but who she essentially is, by nature and by choice, thus she refuses to adjust to ‘normal’ society. At this stage, as Joe isolates everyone around her, so von Trier denies his audience an emotional engagement, pushing us further towards a more complex understanding of his protagonist’s behavior. Unwilling to submit her body to established ideological structures – her husband, doctors, or counsellors – Joe’s refusal to do so becomes a radical, anarchistic act. If Joe is to have the freedom of choice that she so ardently argues for, the film suggests, then it must be absolute; active, not rhetorical.

Later, when L recommends that Joe groom an apprentice, he suggests, P (Mia Goth) the 15-year-old daughter of a criminal family. Joe is initially repulsed by the idea, but ends up sympathising with the teenager. P is a vulnerable, lonely, emotionally damaged young girl who quickly latches onto Joe. Over time, Joe and P’s relationship develops with intimate scenes, and von Trier both crafts a tender, devastating romance, but also surveys a battleground of power and control. Joe desires at this stage both freedom and P, but their relationship is not allowed to last, as soon enough, the law of the boyfriend reasserts itself with a vengeance. During one round of debt collection, they are sent to Jerôme’s (now played by Michaël Pas) house. To make sure she is not seen, Joe tells P to perform her first unaccompanied job. This proves to be a mistake as Joe eventually discovers P has been having an affair with Jerôme: this is the moment where Nymphomaniac comes full circle in a deeply unsettling way. In the last scene of her narrative to Seligman, Joe waits for Jerôme and P in the alley between his home and her apartment and pulls a gun on him. When she pulls the trigger, she forgets to rack the pistol and fails to fire. Jerôme and her protégé proceed to violently assault Joe and have sex in front of her, Jerôme penetrating P with the same number of thrusts as when he had taken Joe’s virginity. As a completing gesture, P then sadistically urinates on top of Joe, in what appears to be an attempt to seal Joe’s fate. Derailed from the position that she previously occupied, Joe’s reign of sexual prowess comes to an end, and she is finally rendered useless and eliminated from the patriarchal structure that contained her.

Seligman and the Crimes of the Sympathetic Liberal

After Joe’s tormenters have disappeared, Seligman picks her up and takes her back to his apartment. Seligman is perhaps one of the most fully realised and cruellest embodiments of the men who stand-in for patriarchal control in von Trier’s cinema. As the film grows bleaker, Seligman’s sympathetic worldview quickly fades as he eventually emerges as patronising and grotesquely smutty. At one point, as Joe mentions her education, he pictures her as a schoolgirl masturbating in front of a blackboard. This is a pivotal moment in the film, where it is revealed that Seligman – as the alleged voice of reason and compassion – is not to be trusted.

White liberal men are dangerous creatures in von Trier’s universe, partly because they think they “understand.” Like Tom Edison’s (Paul Bettany) self-appointed town leader in Dogville, ‘He’s’ (Willem Dafoe) well-meaning husband-therapist in Antichrist, and the emotionally manipulative John (Kiefer Sutherland) in Melancholia, Seligman wants Joe to both crave and appreciate his protection and guidance. However, by not allowing her the authority to have a conclusive say in what her own life may mean, his sympathy and kindly demeanour will only ever be a front.

Towards the end of the film, Joe finally feels at peace. Having unburdened her story and at this stage renouncing sex altogether, she vows to “stand up against all odds, just like a deformed tree on a hill.” She asks to go to sleep, and as she begins to drift off, Seligman silently returns, climbs onto the bed and attempts to rape her. As she hastily grabs her pistol and shoots him, the scene unfolds in darkness. This is a redemptive and victorious moment: the darkness perhaps signifying the termination of patriarchy, where Joe’s every attempt to define herself was ceaselessly thwarted.

Conclusion

“Perhaps the only difference
between me and other people
was that I’ve always demanded
more from the sunset.
More spectacular colours
when the sun hit the horizon.
That’s perhaps my only sin.
” – Joe

Nymphomaniac offers up a powerful provocation about the desirability of the ‘unknowable’ woman – in patriarchal contexts – who both entrances and disgusts broader society. Ultimately, Joe is certainly not the submissive victim of male control. On the contrary, her unpredictable behaviour and rampant sexual appetite is of itself a carnivalesque destabilising of the status quo, and as both a mother and wife, she wears her dissatisfaction on her sleeve. Even though she finds herself trapped in a world of systems, she breaks the mold by exposing these codes as ridiculous and meaningless and by defying them through her destructive action. In this way, she resists the standard requirements for the image of women in cinema by contesting the place and authority of the masculine position. This marks a notable departure from von Trier’s latter-day saints, such as Bess (Emily Watson) in Breaking the Waves (1996) and Selma (Björk) in Dancer in the Dark, whose innocence is brutally exploited all the way to their violent deaths. Nymphomaniac is therefore a radically insightful examination of the desiring female body as a site of political conflict; of politics made personal, and ideals taken to extreme ends. Rarely do we see single heterosexual men onscreen bemoaning their sexual freedom and describing their conquests as shameful or sinful; Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011) is one of a few notable exceptions. No amount of high-minded metaphors however, will erase the fact that the burden of sexual shame almost always falls on women, who are continuously denied the right to own their sexuality in the way men own theirs.

It remains unclear if von Trier has an answer for how women can dismantle the barriers of patriarchy, although the film strongly suggests that female oriented communities (like Joe and B’s teenage anti-love club) may offer an alternate social formation. What remains apparent, however, is that von Trier holds as little faith in an intrinsic goodness to sexuality as he has exhibited for the innate virtuousness of the human spirit: a theme that has dominated his directorial output, from his first feature The Element of Crime (1984) onwards. Yet von Trier is a pessimistic humanist, and his despair over humanity coexists with a stubborn faith in it. Nymphomaniac may appear to be a simple exercise in perversion and nihilism on the surface, yet underneath its tales of doomed existence, there lies a profoundly human centre, which – like Joe herself – remains radically open, and fuelled by transgressive possibilities.

 

Endnotes

  1. Stacy Martin plays the lead character, Joe, in her teens and twenties.
  2. Redacted from a reportedly more explicit and even more unwieldy director’s cut, this article will be based on the wide release version of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac which consists of two separately released volumes that I intend to analyse as a whole. Nymphomaniac is the final part of the Depression Trilogy, having been preceded by Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia(2011).
  3.  Five chapters in Volume 1 and three chapters in Volume 2.

About The Author

Amy Simmons is a freelance film critic based in Brighton, UK. She has written for Time Out London and the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine. Her monograph on Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is published by Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocates series.