It’s interesting to contemplate the changing way that sex has been portrayed on film over the years in western cinema. There were many decades where the act itself could only be hinted at, of course, and a film containing a love story or even an element of romance would probably include a kiss on the lips and little else. In the post-war years filmmakers became braver and censors became more accepting as they reflected changing public attitudes; as a result, during the 1960s and 1970s, intercourse was occasionally seen on screen in ‘normal’ cinemas often resulting in an ‘X’ rating or something equally hysterical, depending on your country. As public attitudes continued to change, filmmakers and writers began to joke about sex more and more, breaking taboos and allowing their serious writing and directing counterparts to become ever more graphic with their own depictions. Films such as Last Tango In Paris and Don’t Look Now dared to go further than most, gaining notoriety at the time for their relatively explicit material.
When I think about sex on film in the 1980s and early 1990s I tend to remember those softcore straight-to-video releases with titles like ‘Night Heat’ or ‘Forbidden Desires’, which usually starred Shannon Tweed or someone who looked and sounded and acted like Shannon Tweed. Pretty tame soft-focus stuff, by and large. There were plenty of deliberately controversial larger budget erotic thrillers, too, like Basic Instinct, which made a star of Sharon Stone, and the awful Body Of Evidence, in which Madonna’s acting career somehow managed to hit a new low. Nowadays, though, very few directors are even bothering to attempt to titillate their audience in such a brazen, unsubtle way; just consider how many new films you have watched during the past five years that contain even one single sex scene. Perhaps sex simply doesn’t sell quite as much as it used to.
A more likely explanation is that the rise in freely-available porn online has put many filmmakers (or rather studios) off from trying to compete with their adult movie counterparts, as the proliferation of hardcore sex on the internet has rendered softcore sex in movies a little pointless, certainly in terms of it being used for the purposes of titillation, anyway. It’s surprising to think that barely a generation ago there were reports of videotapes of Basic Instinct being worn out as a result of people constantly pausing or re-winding the famous full-frontal shot of Stone wearing no knickers, but the availability of more graphic on-screen acts for those that want to see them has changed considerably in the interim. Perhaps fashion is also dictating the change to an extent; it’s presumably seen as being a little bit naff to include a sex scene in your film these days, although over in TV-land – particularly at HBO – the lifting of years of stringent guidelines has resulted in a new era of (arguably sexist) provocation.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last two films I’ve watched specifically about sex are, even more specifically, about sex addicts. The bobbling about of some actor or other’s arse might be old hat to a lot of filmmakers and their target audiences, but there are at least some elements of sex that remain relatively untouched as subjects ripe for analysis, and perhaps unsurprisingly an intelligent and controversial writer like Lars von Trier can still shock cinemagoers during such an examination.
There were some scenes during Steve McQueen’s Shame that I found disturbing to watch, because Michael Fassbender was able to convey through his performance the despair that a sex addict presumably feels as a result of a constant (or regular) need for gratification. The way the subject is addressed in Shame is fascinating, but it has nothing on von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s depressed sex addict Joe shares her sexual history (and, to a degree, information about the rest of her personal life) with a well-read bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) after he finds her bloodied and beaten up in an alleyway.
At four hours and split across two films (though for ease I’m just posting the one review here), von Trier’s latest does at times feel like a slog when viewed in one sitting, with Joe’s progression through a series of lovers and one-minute stands suggesting what I can only presume is the treadmill-like existence of someone whose addiction to sex is very serious indeed. I suppose I should just be grateful that the director managed to cut it down from its original length of five and a half hours, although the idea that a graphic 240-minute arthouse film about a depressed sex addict has had 90 minutes trimmed off in order to make it more ‘commercially viable’ is amusing, to say the least. Who exactly would sit through four hours of Nymphomaniac but would baulk at the idea of sitting through five and a half?
The sex itself in this film rarely looks glamorous (if at all) and I’d go so far as to say it often looks completely unappealing. There are only a few scenes where the people having sex actually look as if they are enjoying themselves, for instance, although perhaps we should just be grateful that filmmakers have now incorporated a healthy dose of realism into such scenes after years of ignoring the existence of grunts and furrowed brows and blank stares at the ceiling.The uniform production design ensures that all the bedrooms and toilets and basements and hotel rooms that Joe uses with her partners are sparse and cold, as if four walls and a bed is all that’s ever needed (and of course even they aren’t really essential). This is a film where the mise-en-scène has been put together without any sprinklings of warmth, and without any apparent signs of comfort: there are scenes in the first film, for example, that are set in a hospital ward as Joe’s father (Christian Slater) is dying of cancer, and it’s hard to find much difference between those starkly-lit, hygiene-conscious and ultra-functional spaces and the ones that Joe actually lives in.
The first film concentrates more on the younger Joe (played with courage and conviction by Stacy Martin), roughly covering her experiences between the ages of 15-31. We do see the character briefly as a child, and at this time her mother Katherine (Connie Nielsen) – who does not subsequently feature in the film – is shown to be cold and distant; Joe has a better relationship with her father, though he seems to be much more comfortable communicating with his daughter when discussing trees. At 15 she loses her virginity to a boy named Jerôme (Shia LaBouef) that she had no previous relationship with. It is a swift act of three front strokes and then five … uh … round the back, so to speak, and these numbers are subsequently riffed on by von Trier, who uses them when setting out the episodic structure of the two films (Nymphomaniac Part I is split into five parts, while Part II has three). They are also linked to the Fibonacci sequence by Seligman, whose uses his vast knowledge in various fields to try and understand Joe and her compulsion; by the end of Part II, though, he is revealed to have failed.
Jerôme forms something of a constant during the course of the two films, coincidentally dropping into Joe’s life on three separate occasions, and at one point fathering a child with her. It’s the nearest Joe ever gets to experiencing love, though the union is always temporary; her constant need for sexual gratification and her neglect for their child drives Jerôme away on occasion, but he also leaves of his own volition and is a complex character in his own right.
As the films progress Joe describes several key sexual encounters to Seligman. There’s a competition with teenage friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) to see who can have sex with the most men on a train journey. There’s an account of an incredibly awkward moment when one of her lovers, H (Hugo Speer), is followed to Joe’s flat by his wife (Uma Thurman), who brings their kids along to the uncomfortable showdown (‘Shall we show the children the whoring bed?’ Mrs H asks matter-of-factly, before losing it spectacularly). Then there’s the death of Joe’s father, which she responds to by having sex with orderlies and other random employees in the hospital. She even lubricates in front of her father’s dead body, perhaps illustrating that she can only emote in a sexual way or that her sex drive at this point is so out-of-control that it takes over in any situation, regardless of context. And there is of course a more obvious psychoanalytic reading, a clear suggestion that she is in love with her father, but it’s a mark of the man’s talent that von Trier is able to convey all of these possibilities with a single surprising image.
These episodes are associated by the asexual virgin Seligman to objects he owns, as if on some level he feels he has much in common with Joe. They both share a love for Izaak Walton’s book The Compleat Angler, for example, and so the practice of fly fishing is linked by Seligman to young Joe and her friend dressing to attract men on a train. Joe is reminded about her father’s suffering by Seligman’s discussion of Edgar Allen Poe’s death from delirium tremens, while a discussion of Bach has parallels with a time in Joe’s life when she was seeing two different men at once, both very different from each other, but who – with the sudden re-appearance of Jerôme – led to her own ‘cantus firmus’. Seligman’s apartment, where nearly all of his conversation with Joe in the present takes place, contains many books and he has religious iconography on the walls but otherwise it is as bare as any of Joe’s living spaces. Despite finding some common ground in Part I Joe gradually realises that this man simply cannot relate to her experiences.
In Part II the focus switches to the older Joe, where her (even more extreme) sexual exploits between the ages of (roughly) 35-50 are detailed unflinchingly. This is grimmer, harder and downright sadder than Part I, and Joe’s inability to sate her own sexual appetite is linked to a long, ongoing period of depression (this is actually the third part of von Trier’s ‘depression’ trilogy following Antichrist and Melancholia, both of which also featured Gainsbourg). In Part II von Trier initially equates Joe with both Valeria Messalina and the Whore Of Babylon, before featuring an attempt at a threesome with an African immigrant named ‘N’ (Kookie Ryan), rendered somewhat amusing as a result of the protracted, heated discussion he has with his brother, who has been invited along to take part.
Botched trysts aside, the darkness of Part II is perhaps best indicated by the change in the men with which Joe has relationships, as well as the increasing way in which the film links sex, inevitably, to violence and crime. Trying more and more extreme measures to satisfy her needs, she eventually visits ‘K’ (Jamie Bell), whose aggressive sadomasochism sessions are actually pretty tough to watch (and I don’t count myself as a prude, whatsoever). Eventually Joe’s visits to K take their toll, as her addiction to them directly endangers her child, Marcel. Later, implausibly, she gets involved with ‘L’ (Willem Dafoe, doing penance for his role in Body Of Evidence all those years ago), a debt collector / gangster, which also directly leads to a lesbian relationship with a younger girl named ‘P’ (Mia Goth). Joe’s role in the debt collection business is to use her sexual experiences of the past, as well as her knowledge of male behavior, as tools with which to break stubborn debtors into paying up; it culminates in a startling scene involving a paedophile debtor played by Jean-Marc Barr, as well as the violent incident that took place directly before Seligman found Joe in the alley.
Von Trier pushed the boundaries of what could be shown on screen when he made The Idiots in the late 1990s, and a string of arthouse directors followed suit, but even by his earlier standards the results of his taboo-busting here are surprising. The sex in Nymphomaniac is graphic, even though it is somewhat unexciting, although even von Trier does not push things too far (and you may think that’s a bizarre thing for me to say if you’ve watched the film, but watch again and study the editing and the way the he cuts away after brief glimpses of the most explicit material).
The actors involved all pretended to have sex and von Trier subsequently superimposed the genitalia of porn-actor stand-ins with digital compositing, thereby blurring the lines dividing art and pornography. It is therefore the kind of film where the courage displayed by many of the actors in trusting von Trier, and going along with his methods and vision, can only be admired and applauded. I enjoyed the performance by Stellan Skarsgård, who anchors the film and provides some respite with his gentle presence, as well as the incredible supporting turn by Jamie Bell, who has fulfilled his youthful promise and has now developed into a fine actor, albeit one who has been limited to supporting roles in the main. Even LaBeouf, whose accent is so bad that during some sentences I could distinctly hear inflections from North America, Europe, Australasia and Africa, puts in an otherwise-decent shift when considering his reasonably tricky role; he has his critics but I’m happy to give some time to an actor who pushes himself with films like this over one that rarely strays out of their comfort zone any day.
However it is Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin, as the two versions of Joe that we mostly see, who must receive the most plaudits. Gainsbourg in particular delivers an incredibly strong performance and it should be recognized by the award-givers over the coming months, if that even matters. She must grapple with some outlandish plot developments and some difficult characterization, but copes commendably thanks to her not-inconsiderable talent. Her haunting cover of ‘Hey Joe’, which plays dreamily over the end credits, is the cherry on top.
Considering that it’s a four hour film about a depressed sex addict, I didn’t really feel like I discovered anything new about addiction, sex addiction or depression during Nymphomaniac. Was I supposed to? It’s probably a horrible thing to suffer from if it is felt to this extent, but perhaps von Trier was not actually intending to shed light or insight on any of these subjects. There are times when his film feels like a critique of male sexuality and masculinity, in fact, as seen through the eyes of a woman. Joe talks often of masculinity, as if it were more important to her condition than femininity, or somehow to blame for it (an interesting choice for the character to have a traditionally male name, too, as opposed to being called ‘Jo’). Through the actions of the character Seligman, von Trier may be suggesting that the presence of men somehow always leads to violence, or some other kind of non-physical pain, whether advertently or inadvertently: Seligman is seen as a non-threatening asexual man throughout, but he eventually makes an unwanted advance that leads directly to a sudden, violent ending.
But then von Trier’s film is quite damning about men in the same way that it is quite damning about everything else it covers: religion, friendship, society, life, this, that, the other. It’s about as downbeat as it gets, but it is a milestone work, and it seems wholly appropriate that a film in which the principal character suggests that love is just ‘lust with jealousy added’ is itself difficult to be fond of yet very easy to admire. Von Trier is a fascinating filmmaker, and here he is once again operating at the outer limits of cinema, with success.
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBoeuf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Mia Goth, Willem Dafoe
Running Time: 241 minutes