Photo: Christian Geisnaes; Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Chances are if you've been tumbling through the Internet over the past couple of months, you've encountered Nymphomaniac. Between the "O face" movie posters, the very NSFW trailers, and Shia LaBeouf's spiral into obscurity, you know something about this movie, and that something is probably sex. And, not just a movie about sex, but a movie with lots and lots of graphic sex (think: penetration, various bodily fluids, the whole kit and caboodle). Nymphomaniac is so much more than sex, though. It's a wonderfully realized (albeit a little crazed) narrative exploring the extremities of human sexuality, connection, and, for lack of a better word, feelings. It's an unrated discourse in Plato's Symposium made for the lust-over-love generation — a generation I've found myself caught in the middle of.
Here's the basic gist of the story (keeping in mind that this is only part one of two): Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac found beaten in a back alley by a lonely Stellan Skarsgård. Gainsbourg refuses his attempts to get her to a doctor, but instead goes back to his tiny apartment for the longest tea time I have ever seen. (I lost track of how many cups the two go through but it seemed pretty outrageous.) There, she narcissistically launches into her sex-ploits, while a patient Skarsgård tries to understand her fearless masturbation techniques, "eight pump" deflowering, and friendly group-sex challenges by relating them to fly fishing. It kind of works. But, that's not the point. The focus here is current Joe's self-loathing story and past-Joe's (played by the wonderfully fresh-faced Stacy Martin) reckless lifestyle. This is where von Trier and his entire cast shines.
Despite the overt sexuality of Nymphomaniac's main character and the polarizing graphic nature of its visuals, it's not a "porn" flick. It does not look to excite, but to incite some sort of personal reflection on sex, sexuality, and, yes, porn. Joe's heightened sense of self-awareness is jarring. She knows exactly what she's doing when she's scheduling 10 back-to-back slam sessions. Even when she's with her father as he dies, she's aware of her coping methods and shamelessly screws around in the hospital. It's the post-coital moments — moments when the climax is over — that humanize the story.
Photo: Christian Geisnaes; Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
This is what I mean when I say Nymphomaniac made me want to be a nympho. Instead of trying to shock the audience with closeups of male and female genitalia and blatant penetration, von Trier composes a jarring portrait of a state of being that calls for the aforementioned closeups. This movie is not like Shame or John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. Though all three present nudity and sex in an honest light, there's a gloss to von Trier's film. It's a character study as opposed to a narrative with characters. (And, just letting you know that asking about Shia LaBeouf's character is a waste of breath because his role is tiiiny.) Joe's descent (or, depending on how you look at it, ascent) into nymphomania isn't exaggerated or mystified. It's very real and very, erm, raw. Watching her bang, lie to, and use guy after guy for her own good is, yes, rather intimidating. I found myself confused as to whether or not Joe's a cruel girl, a girl lost in the world, or a girl completely in control of her sexuality.
I opted out of the latter option after Uma Thurman came in and stole the whole show in her maybe 10 minutes of air time. Her role as the other woman puts Joe's actions into perspective. It is likely one of the most uncomfortable, darkly humored scenes I've ever had to sit through. Jealousy has the ability to drive people mad, and Thurman's character is a testament to that. Does this stop Joe? Absolutely not, and that's the heart of this story.
Joe will stop at nothing to get her fix. She's has this knowing stare that I've struggled to put a word to, but it's one that's conscious of the impact her actions have. It's like she wants the audience to watch her test herself. And, frankly, I wanted to keep watching more after the Interview and Absolut Elyx-sponsored MoMA screening.
I'm a huge prude compared to Joe. When the film ended and I wiped the few tears that made their way out my ducts (yes, I cried) while recounting how many bodily liquids I had just witnessed with a packed audience, I realized I can be so much more adventurous. Joe is the symbol of the extreme, and because of this movie, I know what that extreme is. Did it make me want to flood my bathroom with water and slam my body against the cold, wet tile (that was a weird scene to watch)? No. Did it make me want to masturbate on the subway (again, another awkward scene to watch)? Nope. But, it did (and this could be because of how pretty the movie is) make a case for separating love from sex. Nymphomaniac's tackling of whether or not one can have good sex without love is intriguing and one that I've struggled with for a while. It doesn't provide the answer, but it's getting there. It also outlines how one arrives at that answer, which essentially means putting yourself out there — something I realized I don't do.
Like anything in life, you can't know and understand why something is the way it is without contrast. Joe isn't a nymphomaniac until she compares her sex life to the sex lives of others. I didn't know I was that much of a prude until I saw this movie. But, now that I've seen the furthest (well, furthest part one will show) extent of sexuality outside of super-fetish pornography, I feel inspired to let my proverbial hair down a little more — not too far, though, because Uma Thurman's performance still has me reeling.
Until part two...