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Ask a Pornographer: "Nymphomaniac"

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 11, 2014 at 1:37PM

One of the best analyses of Lars von Trier's brutal, sexually explicit epic comes from someone who makes a living making porn.
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Nymphomaniac

Although this site has disputed the claim that Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" is pornography, the charge has apparently been persistent enough that ADULT magazine included a bonafide pornographer among the ad hoc panel it convened to discuss the film. According to his bio, Gabe Gonzalez is "a performer, teacher, and porn producer living in New York" who also "spends his weekends as an instructor at a not-for-profit youth media program in lower Manhattan." (You know how that goes.) His co-panelists are Fairha Roisin, of the podcast "Two Brown Girls" and Sofia Gassieva, who works for the fashion retailer JNBY. Roisin hated the movie(s), and Gassieva wanted her time and money back (I hope ADULT at least reimbursed her for tickets), but Gonzalez is a fan. Here's some of what he had to say:

It features blowjobs for chocolate, hallucinatory child orgasms, and some of the most genuinely boring voice-over dialogue I've ever heard. In short: this is almost the best thing to happen since "Spring Breakers."

I'm convinced "Nymphomaniac" lives in the world of satire, poking fun at the obsessive myth-making we engage in when considering our own sexual proclivities. Honestly, I was expecting a pastiche of "edgy" sex scenes and reductive/tired conversations about shame and sexual desire. But then Uma Thurman went on one of the most bizarre, uninterrupted rampages I've ever seen on film and it all kind of made sense. For all its instances of violence, intimacy, and heightened drama, "Nymphomaniac" never really takes any of it in earnest. 

The orgasm, the "absolute" indication of pleasure, is missing as payoff for the pain. What seems most inconceivable to viewers about Joe -- and what I find emphasizes her character’s comic exaggeration of the “sexually liberated” individual -- is that at first she's into everything, willing to try anything. She has no preferences. Then she achieves that crazy slo-mo orgasm on the edge of the couch against the textbook, and the lashings are justified in the most disappointing and conventional way. She's not the power-bottom taking dick for fun, she’s just trying to cum. There's no room to think about finding pleasure in pain without the orgasm. I don't find this choice as erotic as I do dramatic.

The "Dangerous Men" chapter was pretty much a rom-com makeover montage where Joe tries on all these tired porn tropes until she finds one that fits. There's nothing transgressive or shocking about seeing a white woman framed by two giant black dicks. That image has been immortalized and rehashed in video clips and gifs and Tumblr posts. We laugh because we've seen it before. We stop laughing because we're reminded once again how people of color are exotified and caricatured in porn, in this movie, in our media. I think this is a good thing, if only because we think about the second part. The part where an image is pushed to such an extreme that it slaps you in the face and reminds you how obvious and dumb it is. This is how I would describe good satire. It's what makes "Nymphomaniac" watchable.  

(I forgot to mention Gonzales also went to Brown, but you probably guessed that by now.)


Not only is this hilarious, but it's also one of the sharpest and least knee-jerk judgmental analyses of "Nymphomaniac" I've seen. It's kind of a shame that it takes a producer of pornographic films to point out what so many critics of the film(s) have missed: the "Nymphomaniac" isn't about sexuality -- female or otherwise -- so much as it the way we yoke our desires, sexual and otherwise, to narratives that distort them as often as they explain them. Guess we need to see now how good movie critics are at making porn.

This article is related to: Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier


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