A Review by John David Ebert
Lars von Trier’s new film Nymphomaniac–which opened on Christmas Day in Denmark in its five and a half hour version, and is just now being released in the US as two separate films, each approximately two hours in length–is not, in actuality, an erotic film at all. In fact, though it is being touted as the most “sexual” film ever made due to its reputedly “pornographic” imagery, it is the very opposite of an erotic film: indeed, watching it may very well do as much damage to the viewer’s sex drive as going on an SSRI. The film is loaded with close up shots of human genitalia from start to finish, but unlike the airbrushed images of porn, the genital images of Nymphomaniac have a sickly look about them that conveys von Trier’s evident disgust with the human body in clinical fashion. Some of these shots were reputedly taken from actors in the porn industry, but they invite comparison with photographs of genitals in science and medical textbooks. There is nothing in the least erotic about them. Or in the film’s sex scenes, for that matter, which are observed with a coldness and visceral brutality that is less shocking than nauseating.
So, let’s not get confused, people: this is Art, not Porn.
The film’s point, rather, is that it is the story not of a woman looking for pleasure, but of her attempt to create a private system of Transcendence using her body as a surface of inscription upon which to incise a network of signifiers that will serve to link her to the metaphysical Beyond. The only problem is that she doesn’t know this is what she is doing.
The film’s narrative is told as a series of confessions by a woman named “Joe,” to a man who finds her tossed aside in an alleyway, bruised and physically beaten. The man, played by Stellan Skarsgard, listens patiently and sympathetically to the confessions of Joe, serving her cups of tea while she rests in bed and unfurls her life story to him throughout the course of one night. The man, named Seligman, lives like a monk in a bare, sparsely furnished room with a Byzantine icon of Mary and the Christ child hanging upon the stained wall. He is highly literate and has built a life out of books and reading, and he listens to the shocking tale of Joe’s indiscretions with compassion and interest. The aura here, very deliberately constructed on von Trier’s part, is that of a Catholic confession to a priest. But of course, the sacrament of confession in the Western tradition was transferred to the analyst’s couch where it was intercepted by a Jewish doctor of the mind named, appropriately enough for his profession, “Dr. Freud.” And so it is no surprise that Seligman, as his name indicates, is a lapsed Jew. (Every detail of von Trier’s carefully constructed narrative counts).
Joe tells the story of a woman who discovered the pleasures of masturbation as a very young girl (she was not raped, or molested–rather surprisingly) and of her teenage loss of virginity with a young man named Jerome (played by Shia LeBeouf) to whom she forms a lifelong attachment. However, she very quickly develops a desire for intense sexual experiences that evolves, over time, to seeing a succession of seven or eight men a night, all carefully scheduled out into a series of appointments so that they do not overlap with one another. Joe, (the older Joe doing the confessing is played brilliantly by Charlotte Gainsbourg in one of her very best performances; the younger Joe is played, less interestingly, by Stacy Martin), eventually attempts marriage with Jerome, who, however, cannot satisfy her insatiable appetites for constant penetration (Joe’s elusive orgasms become fewer and fewer, in inverse proportion to the increase of her sex drive). They have a child, but Jerome knows that the marriage isn’t going to work, and so he tells her to go see other men.
In the second film, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg steps into the role throughout, Joe’s life very swiftly descends into a series of dark encounters with what she calls “dangerous men.” Still married to Jerome, she begins to see a sadist on a nightly basis, who bends her over a chair, ties her up, exposes her buttocks and whips them viciously, night after night. Her vagina, she tells Seligman, had long since gone numb by this point, and it was not until the sadist inflicted the 40 lashes upon her of the Via Dolorosa, that she finally managed to have a thorough orgasm, although it was entirely stimulated by pain, not pleasure (a true image of Lacanian jouissance in action).
In short, Joe’s desire for sexual experiences destroys her life, ruins her marriage and cripples her abilities as a mother. She loses everything, as the addiction creates a tensor field around her life that bends and warps all events inside it like the mass of a planet in space whose curvature causes objects to go tumbling towards it. Eventually, Joe renounces her sexuality altogether and becomes a debt collector, in which she sadistically helps a group of thugs to collect debts from gambling deadbeats, one of whom eventually turns out to be her ex-husband Jerome. After training a young girl to be her apprentice–and having sex with her–the girl ends up having an affair with Jerome, and one night, Joe hides in the alleyway with a gun, waiting for Jerome and her young apprentice to show up. When they do, Joe fails to cock the gun and it does not fire, giving Jerome the opportunity to beat her up and humiliate her by having sex in front of her with her young apprentice, who then finishes by urinating on her.
Which brings the story full circle back to where Seligman happened upon her and took her in for cups of tea while listening to her tale of woes.
And so, back to my original point, which was, namely, that Nymphomaniac is not a film about sex and eroticism–it is far too repulsive for that–but about a woman’s attempt to trace a private line of flight out of the Animal Body and into a Transcendence that her society can no longer provide for her. All of us, nowadays, are on our own in precisely this same sense: we must find ways to construct conduits to Transcendence because all the traditional systems for providing that Transcendence for us in an a priori fashion–church, nation, family, etc.–are in ruins. We are living in an age in which each individual must find a way to the Light on his or her own, and Joe’s attempts to construct private Transcendence are traced out using her own body as a surface of inscription.
At first, her Animal Body, through her vagina as a conduit, inscribes intensities of pleasure upon this surface, but over time, the pleasure waves turn to intensities of pain that, under the hands of the sadist, mark her flesh with the inscriptions of the guilt of her own crimes, much as Kafka’s character in his story “In the Penal Colony,” has his sins carved directly upon his body with a machine that writes it on his flesh as though his skin were a form of displaced parchment.
And indeed, in an age when traditional systems of Transcendence have broken down, the body inevitably comes back as the main surface of inscription–as it once was during the presignifying regime of oral and tribal societies, whereupon it served in place of clay tablet and papyrus as a writing surface to bear the marks of tattoos and mnemonic scars in such a way that the body functioned as one’s own cathedral, a cathedral of pain marks whose incisions correspond directly to the images of stained glass in a cathedral. They are the signifiers, that is to say, from out of which one’s Body without Organs–to use the language of Deleuze and Guattari–is constructed as a surface of inscription for Transcendence.
Nowadays, with the breakdown of all our Transcendental Signifieds, the Animal Body has returned as the primary surface of inscription to serve as a tablet in the age of “secondary orality,” as Walter Ong once called it, in which literacy, together with all its signifieds, is crumbling. Two of the most important of these ancient signifieds were, of course, the Virgin Mother of the Byzantine Tradition (itself derived from the Byzantine conquest of Egypt, where she originated as Isis with Horus on her lap and was transformed into the Virgin) and Mary Magdalene of the Western Christian tradition: virgin and whore.
The Virgin served as the primary Transcendental Signified of Western Civilization throughout the age of the cathedrals and well on into the Renaissance, whereupon she was replaced by the signified of Infinite Space. But in the age of Systems Breakdown, Mary Magdalene as the archetype of the Whore comes forth as the appropriate signified because the whore corresponds to the body as a surface of inscription that hides and conceals the connection to spirituality through and by means, precisely, of the flesh.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, then, is a retranslation of the Magdalen for the age of secondary orality and public Systems Breakdown. During the time of the Romans–another age of Systemic Failure–the Magdalen was the goddess Isis, who was both Virgin and Whore (the West, like the later splitting of the atom, cut her into pieces). Hence, the plight of Lucius, the man who is transformed into a donkey in the Roman novel The Golden Ass, and who becomes a devotee of the cult of Isis, who liberates him from the Animal Body of his somatic prison.
And indeed, Roman literature–in texts like the plays of Seneca or Petronius’s Satyricon–is filled, like the “disinhibiting media” of our own day–with vulgarity, obscenity and pornography, as well, since there again, the body is the only vessel that counts for creating Transcendence during a time in which nobody believes in the old systems anymore. The nomadic body is a portable cathedral and can always be reverted to when the architecture of Public Signifieds becomes, for one reason or another, delegitimized.
Hence, on the historical turn of the spiral two thousand years later, our civilization has come back once again to bear the same character of obsession with the Animal Body as was once the case during the age of the breakdown of Republican Rome into the Empire.
Thus, the return of the nymphomaniac Messalina–the depraved third wife of Claudius whose antics shamed him so much–in the form of von Trier’s character “Joe.” (Messalina at one point, actually appears to Joe, in a vision).
So there is nothing in the least bit “erotic” about Nymphomaniac, in which the Animal Body becomes a space whose smooth surface is disrupted by the striations of the genitals, which “fold” (in the Deleuzian sense) so much cosmic power into them that, like releasing energy from the atom in the Bomb, it is only the jouissance of intense pain that can liberate the energy for Joe in the atomic release of her enormous (and the film’s final) orgasm.
Make no mistake about it, though: Nymphomaniac is a great film from one of today’s greatest living directors and, although it is slightly marred by a cynical and sarcastic ending (which I haven’t revealed here), it will stand as one of von Trier’s greatest achievements. His talents are rivaled, perhaps, only by those of David Cronenberg and David Lynch–both of whom, however, seem to have given up–and the three directors constitute what’s left in the time of what I have termed “postclassic cinema” of the tradition of the auteur who pursues a Vision that remains uncompromised by Hollywood sell-outs and future film “fundraisers” that only further mire the director in logistical and financial problems. (These were hard lessons learned by Coppola, for instance, and Philip Kaufman, whose Unbearable Lightness of Being, by contrast with Nymphomaniac, is an example of a truly erotic film).
Nymphomaniac is too gritty and full of genuine repulsion at the human body for it to be an erotic, or even pornographic work: it is more like a Catholic mass turned upside down in which the Animal Body stands in for the wine and the wafer but unlike those cultic relics refuses to function as a vehicle for transubstantiation that allows the Light to come pouring through.
But note that final detail: in von Trier’s film, the female body replaces the Corpus Christi as the vehicle for the mystery of transubstantiation.