I have been scolded -on numerous occasions- for liking Lars Von Trier. This is, of course, because he's perhaps the most petulant of provocateurs, the type of character who doesn't know when to shut his mouth, who makes films that are challenging in part because they're often painful to watch, and who seems to love shock value for the derision it inspires. Believe me, I get it. Liking Von Trier isn't something easily dismissed with a "well, he's not for everybody," and I find that the place I get the most flack for my fascination with the director is, weirdly, in academic confines. This may be solely because he's discussed more there than anywhere else (telling), but I've found, repeatedly, that the most brilliant of people tend to bristle at the mention of his name for any number of reasons. There are those who hate shock for the sake of shock (sure, he does it, but the purpose is arguable), there are those who immediately spit back a regurgitated mention of how heavily misogynistic his films are (a point I actively disagree with), there are those who hold on to how utterly pretentious the Dogme 95 movement was. Their reasons are many, and from them I have learned this: it may be hard to be Lars Von Trier, but in some ways it's perhaps just as difficult to be someone captivated by his work.
There's something about what Von Trier does that gets to me at a level that's truly disruptive. It's been a month since I opened up this post and started filling in the images to run a write up on Nymphomaniac Vol. I. It's been several weeks since I went to the theater and saw the closing chapter of the film. My opinion on the film (I will be considering it in its entirety) has mirrored the movements of its narrative arc and its many mood swings. At this point, I've decided that I love it, that it's a truly worthwhile piece of art, yet I've struggled to write anything cohesive on precisely why that is. Writing about any Lars Von Trier film too soon is a mistake, and yet the drive to do so is compulsive if you're a person who loves cinema, who loves analysis, who loves to break things into pieces and examine how they function. That's the thing about his work: it's haunting. More than that, it's consuming. His films are relentless moods, things that poke at you and taunt you and make demands that you may not be willing to submit to. This more than anything, I think, is what riles his detractors so much: they don't want to play the game and what he shows them is something they don't particularly want to be shown. The people I know who love these films are the people who allow the haunting to happen. We let these movies in, mull over them, fixate on them, and find something rewarding in the process. We want to talk about them, we want to get angry about them. We want to hate them even as we love them, and in this we lend ourselves to a kind of cinematic masochism.
This is, oddly, what Nymphomaniac is essentially about. It's about the viewer, it's about the critics, it's about Von Trier. If your response, dear reader, is to look askance and ask how I managed to bullshit that out of a four hour odyssey of cripplingly dark humor, pornographic sex, and digressive pontificating on things like fly fishing, stay with me. I'm not the first person to suggest this, but the more I circle around these snippets of conversation the more I find myself fascinated by the project's potential. Like the writings of all those French libertines of yore, Nymphomaniac may feature sex as a lure, but it can't get away from theorizing, explaining, talking endlessly and incessantly to pull from theology, philosophy, politics and mathematics until the pornographic elements are stripped of the erotic and made utterly clinical. The sex in Nymphomaniac, while graphic, is undercut via a number of techniques. It's made to comment on itself, to be viewed as quite deliberately indulgent, absurd, or boring by turn, and is aided by a muted color palette. With rare exception, Von Trier shoots the film in stark, sad looking rooms touched by dirt, or stains, or the reek of something slightly sour. Something slightly (to reference American Hustle's perfume) rotten. We're being told the story of Joe, a woman who self-identifies as a nymphomaniac. In the opening scene of Vol. 1 she's found seemingly beaten and unconscious on a sidewalk by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a quiet man who invites her in, offers her a cup of tea and a bed to rest in. Here, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) begins to tell her story from the beginning. From chapter to chapter, childhood to adulthood, she chronicles the way her psychological dependency on sex (or something like it) has driven much of her existence.
At just the moment of resolution, when it seems like Joe's Scheherazade has exhausted her tale and come to a moment of personal revelation, of peace, Seligman disrupts this in an intrusive, truly disturbing way. The scene is shocking in part because it's disappointing to watch a character we'd grown to trust attempt something unspeakable but also because it feels like a betrayal to the viewer, a trolling by Von Trier, and the ultimate in downer, nihilistic conclusions. My theater crowd reacted poorly to this in the moments following, and the reactions ran the gamut between rage and utter disgust. We picked at the scene relentlessly in the hours following, and though I hated it then I've come around to its purpose and would dare to suggest that what it does is something quite interesting. In a film loaded with every possible flavor of sex, in which the protagonist samples them all, she is also the one that sanctions the acts, that gives consent or uses her body her way. The attempted rape of the final moments is a betrayal, and one that reads like one to the audience because we are made to understand the massive tonal difference between Joe's sexual history and Seligman's violation. In this way, the film again reminds us not only that it sides with Joe's freedom, but also brings the audience fully to side and identify with Joe. Female, male, it doesn't matter: in this moment everyone understands precisely what the stakes are, precisely what the difference is, and gets hit in the gut with a reminder that there are too many people out there, too many dudes, who would try to pass off the act in the name of "well, you've done it so many times before." That we hear Joe get up, shoot to kill, and flee the scene (in the darkness just before the credits) is both a reclamation/restatement of her own agency, but also a devastating reminder of how god awful the world is: she is given no peace, she cannot trust Seligman, he has forced her now not only to retreat further into her self-loathing, but to have to do so as a criminal (and surely, yes, there's something that can be said on the reversal of penetration in that moment). This is always Von Trier's m.o.. In this case, though, it's an effective, troubling reflection on the state of our society as well as, of course, a curious inversion on the way one's stories or words can be twisted towards self-serving and duplicitous purposes by another. It's crushing in Joe's world, telling in Von Trier's. Neither can get any peace, and the cycle continues.