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"Nymphomaniac" Isn't Pornography, Unless You're Into Some Pretty Weird Stuff

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 19, 2014 at 2:47PM

There's plenty of sex in Lars Von Trier's two-part, four-hour epic. But he wants to make you think, not get you off.
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Stacy Martin and a carpenter's square get it on in Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac"
Stacy Martin and a carpenter's square get it on in Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac"

The government of Turkey has banned Lars Von Trier's "Nyphomaniac" as pornographic, and the New Yorker's David Denby agrees, with the verdict if the not the sentence. He uses the word "pornography" or its derivatives six times in his review of the film, devoting his first and last paragraphs to the assertion that Trier's film is "a pornographic work of art" and "a work of pornography." Denby doesn't use the term dismissively, exactly: He also says "Nymphomaniac" is "often brilliant and never simple-minded or dull," but he's strangely, almost obsessively insistent on it, exhibiting a mild -mania of his own. 

Leaving aside the fact that  "work of pornography" and "a pornographic work" are not exactly the same thing, Denby's determination flies in the face of the word's meaning, which in both in linguistic and legal terms refers to an artwork whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal; the Oxford Dictionary adds that it's "intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings." The U.S. legal system further requires that the work have no artistic merit; Denby self-evidently disagrees with that part.

Perhaps Denby's definition is more like the one proposed by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: "I know it when I see it." But I'd argue that "Nymphomaniac" isn't a movie about sex at all, and certainly not one that encourages sexual excitement (unless you're into some pretty weird stuff, which is cool). We're used to parsing an almost infinite number of situations as metaphors for sex, from the train going into a tunnel at the end of Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" to the fishhook earrings with which a young boy takes his girlfriend's lobal virginity in Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." But in "Nymphomaniac," sex is the metaphor, although with a film that in its director's cut runs a daunting five and half hours, it's difficult to say precisely what it's a metaphor for.

For L.A. Weekly's Amy Nicholson, what separates "Nymphomaniac" from porn is "A lot. For one, porn tends to be less interested in fly fishing, piano chords, rugalah, fingernail clipping, and Fibonacci, all subjects discussed at length by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard in between the bonking." The New Statesman's Ryan Gilbey says "The film’s explicitness approaches the pornographic -- there are no holes barred -- but titillation is precluded by the comic screenplay and a tone of clinical coldness. At times, it has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation, only with montages of genitalia in place of Venn diagrams and flow charts." Where "Last Tango in Paris" was accused of being porn disguised as art, Total Film's Kate Stables counters that "Nymphomaniac" is "art disguised as porn."

There is, to be sure, a lot of screwing in "Nymphomaniac," which at midnight tonight will be available on demand in all its two-part glory. (Volume I opens in theaters Friday; Volume II follows in three weeks.) But while organs are inserted into orifices on a regular basis, the process is never particularly satisfying, especially for Joe, who over the course of the film is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Maja Arsovic and Ronja Rissman. Like a junkie chasing a high -- although she rejects the term "sex addict" in favor of the outmoded classification that gives the film its title -- Joe ceases to find pleasure in sex, but she keeps at it, bedding down with as many men and women (but mostly men) as she can. Eventually, only pain can restore the tension and release of orgasm, until she ends up beaten and left for dead in an alley, which is where the film first catches up with her. Are you getting hot yet?

Saying "Nymphomaniac" isn't a movie about sex is a little like saying "Jurassic Park" isn't a movie about dinosaurs; it may be a metaphor, but it's a great big honking in-your-face one. But even if you're aroused by the sight of naked, generally quite attractive bodies (and Shia LaBeouf's dreadful accent doesn't make you lose your wood), there's a point at which you have to laugh -- if not sooner, then certainly at the moment in Volume II where Gainsbourg's face is framed between two enormous cocks as the brothers she's picked up argue over who gets to stick what in which of her holes. Of course, laughter is a part of sex, too, which when you don't have a director choosing the most flattering angles can often look pretty darn ridiculous. 

If "Nymphomaniac" gets you all worked up, more power to you -- the world needs all the perverts it can get. (Although I've had coffee with David Denby a few times, we have yet to discuss his turn-ons.) But there's little in the film itself to suggest that erotic excitement is Lars Von Trier's aim. The organ he wants to stimulate is the one between your ears.

This article is related to: Nymphomaniac


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