Some Thoughts on “Nymphomaniac”

I finally watched the second volume of “Nymphomaniac” last night, a movie by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, which created some controversy when it first came out in 2013. The movie tells the life story of self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Joe and her unending sexual escapades. What ever you can think of, the movie probably has it: Joe fucking random guys on a train, competing with another nympho friend or hers for the most notches; Joe cultivating her own harem of men, each lover satisfying another of her very facetted sexual needs; Joe becoming a home wrecker, Joe getting into S&M, Joe starting her own torture business. It’s all there, and if you know Lars von Trier, it’s all very graphic.

There’s more to the story line though. The plot is framed by Joe’s early love affair with Jerome, whom she stays in contact with over the years and eventually gets married to; they also have a child. This by no means changes Joe’s attitude towards her sexual drive though. She picks up where she left off, eventually leaving Jerome and the kid. Years later, she starts an affair with a much younger girl. By accident, the girl gets to know Jerome and the two start an affair behind Joe’s back. When Joe discovers and tries but fails to shoot Jerome, the found out lovers beat her up badly, make her watch while they are having sex and urinate on her, just to round it out.

There is a third and final level to the movie, an even bigger framework. Joe tells all of this in retrospect over the course of one night to the kind and caring Mr. Seligman, the same man who picked her up earlier lying unconscious in the street, after Joe’s trashing by Jerome. Seligman is a highly educated academic who lives completely withdrawn, and, as it turns out has never had sex in his life. When at the end movie, he tries to have sex with the still sleeping Joe; she wakes up and shoots him with the same gun she had meant to end it for Jerome.

This is really the shortest summary I could give – you have to watch to the movie to really capture its essence. It is very well worth doing so; as I said, I watched it last night and keep turning it over and over in my mind. Hence this article to make some more sense of my thoughts.

So in no particular order, here we go:

Many critics despise the movie for exploring every possible sexual perversion in detail, but that tells you more about the critics than the movie. With its very detached and unemotional depiction of all of these so called perversions (there is nothing sexy about the sex in Nymphomaniac), it really gets you to wonder about what is sexually “normal” – exactly by the stark contrast these perversions create. Once you have gotten over the initial shock and the further you get into the movie, Joes inclinations loose more and more of their punch. What is so wrong about her wanting to have sex with more than one person? Why is her having a gangbang with two random black guys viewed as the decline of the West? She literally gets off on it and I can’t help but wonder if that is exactly the problem the people around Joe are having – because they themselves are stuck in monogamous relationships and marriages, sentenced to live out a life with a person they are no longer sexually attracted to. And anyone questioning that norm and possibly having more fun in the process is viewed as a major threat, as Joe finds out when her (female!) boss tells her to attend sex therapy to not get fired. The seemingly caring analyst in the end turns out to also just propagate the Disney relationship model and Joe consequently asserts her right to not buy into it. It’s a model, yes, but not necessarily THE model.

To me, this reveals another great idea about that movie, which is showcasing the hidden but very powerful impact of sexual economics. Joe is constantly a target of female aggression, simply because she gives something away for free – sex – a commodity women are supposed to withhold. Of course that is not how most modern women like to think about this stuff – but in effect, this is exactly what reality looks like, even in the age of post-feminism: Girls being the seller, guys being the buyer. Or to phrase it differently: Exchanging the constant availability of sex for the emotional (and sometimes financial) stability the buyer provides. This is at the heart of the classical relationship model and the movie, in its almost clinical coldness, does a great job unraveling these marketplace dynamics – the exact same dynamics most of us put ourselves willingly under. This does not sit too well with our very liberal opinion of the critic’s or ourselves, for that matter.

The display of aforementioned sexual economics naturally lead to another question, one that Seligman, Joe’s rescuer, eventually voices himself: What if, instead of Joe, we had been following a male protagonist through this sexual labyrinth? Would we view him differently for sleeping with multiple partners, breaking up families and leaving his child behind? Seligman answers that question himself: Of course we would. Most of us know of men who have done just that but did not experience the kind of aggression Joe does. The buyer must not fear the wrath of other sellers – he is the buyer after all, he is expected to do just that, even if he occasionally transgresses certain social norms while doing so. But then again: How often do you meet a real life Joe, a woman who is willing to go against the grain and risk being a disruptive factor to the sexual marketplace? Not very often. And it’s not just the evil patriarchal system that is to blame – there is also a significant element of personal cowardice. A cowardice Joe can only laugh about.

I’m not trying to paint the picture brighter as it is. Joe has some very, very dark aspects to herself: She does not care about hurting others, not even those close to her, maybe with the exception of her father. But the movie does not try to hide these tendencies either. It just juxtaposes the dark sexual abyss that Joe can be at times, with the culminated hypocrisy of the “normal” people around her. And leaves you wondering which one is preferable.

One thing seems rather clear though: Sex, in director von Trier’s view, is not something you can domesticate. You can try all you want, but you either pay for it massively by restricting what does not want to be restricted and / or it comes back to bite you in the ass. This is true even for the most asexual idealist, represented in the movie by Joe’s savior Seligman. His kindness of taking a beaten up stranger into his house, the level of honest understanding he brings to Joe’s unusual story, his refusal to morally judge her – all these make him the one bright burning example of humanity in this otherwise abysmal fantasy of a movie. Well, until the end. When Joe’s is finally done telling her story, inspired by Seligman’s unending reserve of compassion, she vows to abandon her ways, as much as that will cost her. Next thing you know, he is sneaking into her room while she is asleep and starts fucking her – so much for his self-diagnosed asexuality. The beast is always just lurking beneath the surface. What in itself seems like the ultimate betrayal, just reveals another layer of bigotry on Joe’s part: When she shoots the caring rapist, Joe’s explicit justification to Seligman for all her own betrayals, i.e. men’s ultimate amorality and how you should embrace it, all of the sudden doesn’t apply to Seligman; even though by raping her he is proving her exact point.

This movie is truly beyond good and evil; and that is why it is so damn good.