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Between Female Liberation, 'von Trierisms' and Racism: 7 Random Thoughts on 'Nymphomaniac'

By Toby Ashraf | /Bent March 21, 2014 at 1:58PM

For the past few months, there's been a steady stream of discussion surrounding Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" as its made its way to theaters and home viewing channels around the world. The first part finally hits U.S. cinemas today, and both parts are now available on VOD, so it seemed like an appropriate time to consider various ideas with respect to the films even if at this point you're probably sick of hearing about them. But there's really so much at play in "Nymphomaniac" -- both positive and problematic -- that it kind of begs further analysis, especially now that people everywhere are getting the chance to actually see it. So here -- in a sort of random, freestyle form -- are seven thoughts I had with respect to "Nymphomaniac," which you should probably see before reading (unless you don't mind some of it being spoiled).
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Nymphomaniac

For the past few months, there's been a steady stream of discussion surrounding Lars von Trier's  "Nymphomaniac" as its made its way to theaters and home viewing channels around the world. The first part finally hits U.S. cinemas today, and both parts are now available on VOD, so it seemed like an appropriate time to consider various ideas with respect to the films even if at this point you're probably sick of hearing about them. But there's really so much at play in "Nymphomaniac" -- both positive and problematic -- that it kind of begs further analysis, especially now that people everywhere are getting the chance to actually see it. So here -- in a sort of random, freestyle form -- are seven thoughts I had with respect to "Nymphomaniac," which you should probably see before reading (unless you don't mind some of it being spoiled).

I. “Nymphomaniac” has the same ring to my ears like “hysteria”, “homosexuality” or “promiscuity” and of course that’s not an accident. The word evokes notions of a time when the exploration sexuality, and especially female sexuality, was in the firm male hands of doctors, psychoanalysts and moral spokesmen, long before any liberation movements could tell us that (female) sexuality is not a bad thing. “Nymphomaniac” as a film title is one of Lars von Trier’s questionable provocations. The term is later turned into an empowering label when Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) leaves a self-help group denying the diagnosis “sex addict” and appropriating the term “nymphomaniac” for herself. Let’s just ignore the fact that the Greek word “nymphe” not only describes a young woman of marriageable age but also a mythological nature spirit – a classic dichotomous attribution of the female to nature and its nurturing, motherly and “chaotic” qualities. Let’s also forget that in “Antichrist” Gainsbourg was psychoanalized by her husband and eventually burned as a witch, if I remember correctly. Also noteworthy: men are “ladies men”, “Don Juans”, “conquerors”, “womanizers”. Women are “sluts”,  “whores”, “maneaters”, “femme fatales” or “nymphomaniacs”. Just saying. 

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II. The saga begins with a black screen, the ultimate symbol of infinity, nothingness and imagination. Then, the camera cranes around a few back alleys that don’t seem to disguise their artificial studio aura until we finally discover Joe, bruised and battered, lying on the street unconsciously. Then, Joe will be saved by a man she will confess her life story to.  All this is filmed in a weirdly cheap looking set that builds the basis of the entire narrative frame. Is it all fake on purpose? Can we maybe not trust our narrator Joe and her flashback memories? Is this set one of those van Trier jokes like the fox in “Antichrist” that looks at the audience and says “Chaos reigns!”? Before it all begins, the camera dives into a black shaft and disappears. No further comment needed: A brutally beat-up nymphomaniac, a male saviour, Freudian camerawork – we get what we expected, only to discover that these “von Trierisms” are nothing but red herrings at first.

III. Question one: Does it matter that a male writer/director has the authority over a text about female sexual emancipation? Question two: Can we watch “Nymphomaniac” without having one eye on the ordeals van Trier has regularly sent his other leads through? Question three: Does the director know what he is talking about? Question four: Is it relevant to ask these questions?

IV. Part one is one of the most sex-positive explorations of non-normative human behaviour I have seen in a long time. And it’s funny. We see climbing ropes dangling from the ceiling of a gym, knowing that somewhere up there little Joe has her first orgasm during physical education, pun intended.  Yes, children are sexual beings, too. We see teenage Joe and her friend on a train hunting for men to win a bag of chocolates as a prize for having most sex partners before reaching their destination. Teenagers playing sex games and not giving a fuck – nice. We hear about an all female organization that forbids relationships and sleeping with the same guy twice. Hello, slut pride, goodbye monogamous couple bullshit! Loving it. Joe’s first sex turns into a graphic equation of penis pushes and anal hits before the one-minute-looser-lover has come.  No need for penis envy – the phallus has just been deconstructed through ridicule. Joe moves on, until she gets what she wants sexually and against all social odds. Her “Rage to Live” is her rage to fuck and no one can stop her. Hallelujah!

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V. Then Part Two. In it: “The Dangerous Men”. Jamie Bell as an underground S/M specialist strapping Joe to the couch and beating her until her ass bleeds is something so powerful and provocative, fearlessly played and well scripted that it took my breath away for a moment. Before that: Sex without communication. Joe hires a translator “of African languages” to fuck a black refugee from the streets. Him and his buddy argue over who gets to enter which hole while their enormous erections frame Joe’s face before being called “the Negro brothers”. No, some words, like “negro” shouldn’t be erased from language, Joe says. Neo-colonial, ultra racist bullshit, so offensive it made me want to puke. Also: the end of all indulgent accepting or ignoring of van Trier’s “provocations”- a disappointing dead loss.

VI. Miscellaneous: Only towards the end does Joe get the idea of finally sleeping with someone of the same gender. Makes you look back and think: “This has actually all been pretty heteronormative” (Even though Joe’s entire story of being a sexual outsider no matter what is a pretty queer idea). 

VII. Conclusion: not possible.