Harper’s Bizarre : Nymphomaniac and Cinematic Sadism

Harper EliotToday we welcome Harper Eliot as a new columnist on Write Sex Right.

Each month Harper will reflect on the curious and thought provoking that has crossed her path.

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In retrospect I think I discovered cinema that didn’t shy away from realistic depictions of sex at about the time I discovered Lars Von Trier. Possibly exactly the same time. It was the Summer before my last year of school, when my family decided it was time to upgrade our home cinema to a screen larger than 10 inches, and as the eldest child I claimed the old television for my bedroom. Most of July and August were spent synchronising my smoking habits with my next-door neighbour’s, and lying in bed with some of Film4’s weirdest and least child-friendly 2am selections. Including Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. What began as heady, teen fascination soon developed into a deep appreciation for any art (but particularly Von Trier’s) that wasn’t afraid to show me the grimiest parts of the world as they really could be, and most poignantly, sex in its darkest and most heart-breaking incarnations. Over the several years since then I’d like to think I have developed a keener eye, and while I’m certainly not blind to his sometime resounding missteps, there’s no denying that on the whole I am a fan of Von Trier’s work.

Therefore it will come as no surprise that I was first in line for tickets to see Nymphomaniac. In fact I was at the Chelsea Curzon for the Nymphomaniac: One Night Stand (a Facebook status which my Grandmother found shocking and perplexing in equal measure) where parts I and II of Nymphomaniac were screened back to back for the first time in the UK. I had, at first, thought to review the film as a whole, but plenty of people have done it already, and to be honest, I think in this instance I ought to stick to what I know. Namely, depictions of sex in art.

Unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of sex in Nymphomaniac. More in part I than part II, but a great deal in both. There is adolescent sex, and greedy sex, and loving sex, and callous sex, and competitive sex, and ugly sex, and sexless sex, and everything in between. But what these many lascivious scenes largely fail to do, is contribute to the telling of the story. Beyond illustrating the film’s title (which is impactful, but only to a point), there are few sexual encounters depicted on screen that truly serve a purpose within the detail and intricacies of the narrative. I almost always find it disappointing when sex is trivial or additional to a story, and am ever seeking stories that make use of the extraordinary power it can have as a narrative device and a catalyst. What cements my disappointment with the sex in Nymphomaniac is Von Trier’s masterful dealings with it throughout much of the rest of his work. I’ve always felt that depictions of sex in his films were not only honest and realistic, but also key to the stories he tells; they are not just titillation or shock, they are actually integral to character and plot development. Take, for example, Breaking the Waves; it contains a fair amount of sex, and as far as I can remember, none of it is pointless. It serves to illustrate Bess’s naïvety and curiosity, and then becomes a device for her husband, and finally the catalyst for her discovery and ultimate tragedy. It holds a thread throughout the narrative. In Dogville sex works in a very different, but equally effective way, as the unrelenting and casual cruelty of Grace’s rape is so essential to the viewer’s perception of the film’s conclusion, and also bears a great deal of weight when it comes to understanding the men in the film. Of course, these examples are extreme, but still they are appropriate to their own extreme settings. Considering Von Trier’s evident ability to use sex as more than a place-filler or a relational after-thought, to perceive and portray it as useful and integral to a story, Nymphomaniac, in this regard, is a little disappointing.

However, there is still something to be said for the film’s dealings with eroticism. There are only so many times, even in the space of four long hours, that anyone can watch graphic and often uncomfortable depictions of sex and still feel shocked; and given the gratuity of cocks and cunt in Nymphomaniac, it is much more interesting to consider the role of eroticism within the film. As is often the case, the eroticism appears in the tension, conflict, and anticipation around the sex, and not in the sex itself – which, truth be told, gets rather repetitive. Ironically, one of the best examples of this can be found in what is, probably, the film’s most obviously gratuitous sex scene. Joe, our (anti-)heroine and her best friend B compete to see which of them can fuck the most men on board a commuter train before it reaches its destination. The actual sex is rather pedestrian, but as Joe attempts to seduce, she is at first unsure, and her angular pursuit of carnal satisfaction holds a kind of honesty. There is honesty in her uncertainty, and in her awkward beauty, and her too desperate attire. This continues as she gains confidence and she spins stories (about dwarf hamsters), drawing in the sympathy and curiosity of the male passengers, and most poignantly, with her final railway conquest, where her seduction is not simply sexual, but actually a crumbling of the man’s own morality and happiness; there is eroticism in this conflict.

Likewise, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Joe’s encounter with (what I would call a sadist, named) K is also deeply erotic. In stark opposition to the scene on the train, there is no sex between K and Joe, aside from his fingers in her cunt (and no great deal is made of this). What make the scenes erotic are the characters’ interactions, and the surreal atmosphere that surrounds them. It is not a typical BDSM scene, and to consider it as thus would, I’m sure, have many kinksters up in arms about the way these activities are portrayed. But as with everything in his films, Von Trier places the play between Joe and K in a hyperreality upon which the viewer cannot rely. Similarly to the way in which it is never clear where exactly the film is set, it is also unclear precisely who K is or where his stark, white room is situated. There is a haziness at the edge of the film’s reality; it’s not wholly unfamiliar, but it is impossible to pinpoint. This is also true of the relationship between K and Joe. This uncertainty serves to keep the viewer on edge, senses more attuned, pain more visceral. It is also my belief that the single most shocking and sadistic moment in the film is actually felt not by Joe, but by the viewer, when Von Trier references the most transgressive and tragic moment of Anti-Christ with a few seconds’ reprise of ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’. The fact that this occurs whilst Joe is with K heightens the experience of his sadism and her desperation. All of this is so many thousands of times more erotic and more interesting than Joe’s endless procession of sexual encounters.

Sadly, for a four hour film called Nymphomaniac, the vast majority of the sex has very little to do with telling the story and the moments wherein the eroticism transcends the action are few and far between. It occurs to me, especially when I consider the catastrophic misstep of the film’s conclusion, that really this is a moment of gluttonous self-indulgence for Von Trier. This is the film he wishes he could get away with; it is the abundance of sex and sadism he constantly yearns to inflict upon his audience; and whilst it is not without merit, and I could watch Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård in conversation forever, whatever Von Trier’s intentions were as regards the sex in Nymphomaniac, I believe he said it far better and far louder before he made this film.

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Author: Harper Eliot

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