Nymphomaniac (V1)

House of Usher, House of Cards

nymphThere’s a meta layer to Nymphomaniac in which director Lars von Trier allows character Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) to comment on the nature of the film’s narrative.  He complains that a story being told to him by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), which makes up the entire film, is full of preposterous coincidences.  She replies by implying that he’ll get more out of it if he simply believes in it.  Is von Trier, mischievous as he is, commenting on the concept of stories and storytelling in general, on the idea that nonfiction is a weave of lies and truths just as love, as Joe tells us, is nothing more than “lust with jealousy added?”  Or is this an unfortunate cop-out, wherein the filmmaker tells us he’s going to show us what he wants to, and our choices are to either enjoy/learn from it or have a bad time?  You don’t necessarily have to choose one while watching the film, but shortly into it, you do have to accept that the parts of Joe’s herstory that are most heavily featured (and more so the parts that are skipped) are chosen with almost no justification by Joe (and by extension, von Trier), and that the film’s most preposterous coincidences are not the things that happen in Joe’s stagy, melodramatic tale, but the ways in which she and Seligman segue into them, the unlikely-to-the-point-of-absurdity observations that trigger the transitions.

The film opens as Seligman, a polite bachelor, finds Joe unconscious and badly beaten in the street.  He takes her in when she refuses an ambulance (your first House of Cards moment), gives her a blanket and something to drink, and asks how she ended up in this situation.  She claims that it’s her fault because she’s a terrible human being.  But there’s an ostentatious quality to this statement.  Joe wants Seligman to ask, as von Trier wants of his audience, what she means so that he (and we) can prove her wrong.  She says she’ll need to start at the beginning, and promises that it will be long (to be precise, four hours and two films).

She starts with her fascination with sex, and how it began when she was two years old.  This comes as no surprise, but only because of the film’s title.  If it were called something else, say, “Joe’s Story,” would this really feel like an organic way to begin?  Would Joe believe that a middle-aged stranger is automatically interested in her lifelong sexual escapades?  Maybe she sees an opportunity to work through something.  Or maybe this is just what von Trier is interested in about her.

First, she’s certain she’ll convince him of how bad a person she is when she relates a story of how, as a teenager (now played by Stacy Martin), she and a friend referred to as “B” (Sophie Kennedy Clark) dressed as hookers and had a contest to see how many male train passengers they could seduce in a single night.  The prize was a bag of candy, so of course, it wasn’t about the prize.  At least not for Joe, who engages in these sexual encounters with absolutely no joy.  So what is she after?  She’s a self-diagnosed addict, so I’m not asking about the past.  What is she trying to achieve by relating these stories?  Is there actually anything to discover?  Seligman, a conveniently well-read man with a wide net of interests and knowledge, tells her that nothing on the train was her fault, because one cannot blame an addict (even after she sexually assaults a married man – it’s interesting to observe that she has such power over a man twice her size and more than twice her age).  The numbers three and five keep coming up in her supposedly unrelated side-stories, and Seligman recognizes them as Fibonacci numbers.

Here’s what I mean about the transitions.  The Fibonacci thing, okay, it’s in Seligman’s nature (as a loner and a thinker) to make these connections, to dig previously undiscovered meaning out of stories and literature.  But the challenge on our part is whether any of these connections actually mean anything in the context of the story we’re witnessing.  Joe remembers the train story after noticing a colorful fishing lure hanging on Seligman’s wall.  He’s not much of a fisherman, but knows a lot about it, and once caught a big fish with that very lure.  Fishing imagery intermittently pops up during the scenes of young Joe and B luring men to them.  Not only that, but present-day Joe and Seligman’s voiceovers explain the imagery to us.  Aesthetically, it’s fun, but we actually don’t need any of it in order to create this metaphor for ourselves: young girls in skimpy outfits are essentially fishing lures for men, who are essentially dumb fish.  Later, Seligman brings her a plate of rugelach (a Jewish pastry), and happens to serve it with a cake fork.  Lo and behold, Joe used to know someone who ate rugelach with a cake fork, and she has very strong feelings on the “unmanliness” of the practice.  This brings her to one of the most significant characters in the story, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who helps her lose her virginity, and then appears at increasingly unlikely points in the story – he just so happens to be interim boss at her first job and hires her on the spot, and then happens to be present when Joe finds a torn-up photograph of him in a random park.  Here’s the thing about Jerôme: he’s the only guy she does not indulge herself with as a young adult, which makes him the single important man in her story (aside from her father, played by Christian Slater, whom I’ll get to).

Another transition: Joe notices that Seligman has been reading (or rather, “re-acquainting [himself] with”) Edgar Allan Poe.  Joe has never heard of Poe, and Seligman’s chosen detail about the writer is that he died of severe delirium after attempting to tear himself away from his own addiction (in Poe’s case, alcoholism).  This reminds Joe of her father, who died of cancer, but experienced delirium in his final days, shouting for his wife, flopping around on the floor of the hospital (not unlike a fish) until the point of being straitjacketed, and so on.  Again, it makes sense for Seligman to make this connection with what he has, but the fact that the book happened to be sitting in plain view of this exact person, who he didn’t know would be there, is more than a little tough to believe, not because the film’s thematic stuff is too heightened or because I don’t believe such an encounter could happen, but because of how complex it is, and how reliant on these themes the film’s story is (and von Trier makes sure to have Joe and Seligman explain them until you get it – another example involves Joe going on long walks, intercut with images of a lion pacing in a cage, only to then have Joe state in a voiceover, “I was like an animal in a cage”).

Wait.  Joe has never heard of Edgar Allan Poe?  For all her knowledge of mythology, religion, sport, numbers, she hasn’t heard of the inventor of detective fiction, one of the first well-known people to try to write literature full-time, the guy who gets over-quoted and over-reported-on ad infinitum?  House of Cards again – she doesn’t know him because if she does, then the next important part of the film can’t happen, even if it defies all logic.  Remove one card, the house collapses.  But she’s got a lot more in common with Poe than she thinks, besides their rhyming names.  Seligman doesn’t mention it, but curious/careful viewers and readers may remember that shortly before Poe died, he was found barely conscious in the street, and incoherent about how he ended up in such a situation.

Volume 1, the halfway point, ends with a revelation about Joe that mirrors a common belief: that sex addicts cannot perform or become aroused by someone they actually care about.  Joe is told that the secret ingredient to sex is love, and when her more-than-coincidental reunion with Jerôme happens, she tries.  And she feels nothing.

Nymphomaniac is a film wherein it cannot possibly all mean something.  But it’s about the thought that it could, that there is something to discover in the disjointedness of the past.  It’s sometimes over-explanatory, sometimes artistic for the sake of being artistic, and visually sexual for the sake of shock, but beyond the gloss, it’s challenging, and not for its run time (Volume I is actually under two hours).  A lot feels at stake, even when the only present action is a late-night conversation between strangers.  Charlotte Gainsbourg continues to dominate difficult scenes and dialogue, and Stellan Skarsgård retains his ability to make himself someone we would want to spill our secrets to.  Stacy Martin, though, steals the movie.  She has all of the difficult physical scenes, does all the naked acrobatics with the film’s legions of homely men, and shows serious dramatic chops in her scenes with Christian Slater (who gives one of the greater performances of his recent career, at least that I’ve seen, in a character who does little but give his daughter allegories about how beautiful she is, which may or may not have contributed to her present problem).  It’s a film about failure, self-possession, self-deception, and taking walks.  It has the wrong title.  It’s also a film that made me listen to Rammstein.  Twice.

Read my writeup of Volume II here.

Nymphomaniac Volume I; written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, and Christian Slater.

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. […] Nymphomaniac (V1) […]


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