Lars Von Trier’s depression trilogy, comprised of the controversial and manic Antichrist and the apocalyptic Melancholia, came to an orgasmic end with Nymphomaniac, Parts 1 and 2. Scintillatingly sinful and unabashedly obscene, the epic film (when watched together, as I did at the one night stand showing) delivers with a rhythmic and throbbing success.
Following the life of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she tells her tale to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), we are confronted with the morality of sex outside of marriage. Fetishism, BDSM, group sex, paedophilia, and female sexuality are all issues brought into the furore, demanding consideration, and polarising the audience in their strong emotional responses. In one scene, Mrs H (Uma Thurman) suffers a debilitating and hysterical breakdown; audiences were split apart into those who nervously snort-laughed, and those who resented the snort-laughers for their seemingly cavalier nature to what was a desperately tragic scene.
In another, a child’s life is put in great peril and over half the audience whispered to each other, evoking one brave soul in my cinema to beckon silence. Our squeamishness about sex and violence, and often the consensual intersection between the two, are brought out into the garish light. As an audience, we are forced over the arm of a sofa, strapped down, passive to the brutal lashings of Lars. As someone who works in the sex toy industry, I am relatively desensitised to the dark underbelly of sex and pleasure, and very much knowledgeable of all manners of sexual deviations, yet even I found myself flinching. And I love it.
Stellar performances are given by the cast, notably, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin (playing a younger version of Gainsbourg’s character), and Mia Goth. Shia LaBeouf’s scenes, particularly his sex scenes, were relatively anticlimactic, leaving a salty taste in one’s mouth (but have we not come to expect this from Shia?) Gainsbourg offers a panorama of nymphomania, and more broadly, mental illness, that was largely sympathetic and non-condemning, despite the condemning society that she finds herself in. In the latter half of the film, a great distinction is made between being a sex addict, and being a nymphomaniac. The film culminates in a scathing condemnation of the misogynistic undercurrent in society with regards to the female body and the female pleasure, and how there is a stark asymmetry between the female nymphomaniac, who is treated as a deviant, and the male nymphomaniac, who is accepted.
Seligman’s interjections couple the intellectual and the sexual, making this film seem almost like a T.S. Eliot poem; a rich collage of high and low culture (cruising, fly fishing, BDSM, and Fibonacci). Sex is theorised in its likening to the trio sonata, with Joe’s various lovers each assigned parts (the organ, the violin, and the flute.) But Lars does this in a way that is not isolating, nor pretentious, but rather an interesting comment on how culture divvies up various aspects of life. Through treating sex intellectually, it is granted the esteem it deserves, rather than merely being brushed under the rug or capitalised on for the male pleasure.
What is glorious about the film’s marketing, which has grabbed the world by its hair, is its depiction of all cast members in the throes of climax. Now don’t be misled, not every cast member is depicted during sex. In fact, most aren’t. But what this does is offers an omniscient insight into people, stripped of all the pretensions of clothes and pose. They are depicted in their most animalistic, and most earnest, form.
The sex scenes are not torture porn like Antichrist, or other films that we refuse to share from Netflix onto Facebook. They are not sensationalist or conformist to beauty standards imposed by pornography. Vaginas are hairy, penises are not always gargantuan, nipples are long, and bodies sag. And this is not bad. The scenes aren’t intended to titillate, while they easily could, (I found myself positioning my legs in such a way that my obvious enjoyment was not visible to the theatre.) And it is this that helps conquer ingrained conceptions of sex, and why this is a film that should be heralded as an artistic masterpiece, tackling issues that deserve tackling. The film is beautifully thoughtful, genius in its approach, and refreshingly inclusive of all walks of life (with the asexual person given a main role, and homosexuality treated with a cool indifference).
No matter how you may feel afterwards (whether you want to ride the stranger next to you at the bus stop, or remain abstinent for a decade), you will feel liberated. However, it’s a long, shocking, and tumultuous journey, so afterwards you may want to light up a cigarette and lay back.