03/31/2014 11:23 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Angle on Nymphomaniac: Vol. I


Chapter III of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, demonstrates the effect of his central character's actions on others. The character, Joe (whose youthful and grown selves are played respectively by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg), has been playing a game in which she schedules appointments with many men during the course of the night. She flips a dice to determine what her response to them will be. In the scene in question she tells her lover Mr. H (Hugo Speer), a man she can't stand that the reason she can no longer see him is that she loves him too much. After he leaves his family for her, H's wife (Uma Thurman) shows up with her children, just as Joe's next appointment for the evening appears, flowers in hand. Joe responds to H's histrionics with,

"You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs."

Steve McQueen's Shame was a film about the consequences of sexual addiction, but von Trier's project is far more ambitious. Joe's lust is a combat against love. Actually the right word might better be called anesthetic. She says,

"For me love was lust with jealousy added"

and she forms a coven of women devoted to promiscuous sex who chant,

"mia vulva mia maxima vulva."

When she does fall in love with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), the man who has deflowered her at 15, she remarks,

"I could suddenly see the order in all this mess. I wanted to be one of his things."

The form of the movie is a combination of erotic history like the Story of O, The 120 Days of Sodom, or Emmanuelle and a psychoanalytic case history like Freud's Anna O. The psychoanalytic aspect is underlined by the fact that Joe is telling her whole story to a kindly seemingly assimilated anti-Zionist Jew named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who is a computer profile of the psychoanalyst/intellectual and who spends most of the movie trying to minimize her guilt and self-hatred by saying things like,

"it's extremely common to react sexually to a crisis."

One of the triumphs of Nyphommaniac: Vol I is that it 's totally devoid of eroticism even as it profoundly examines Joe's lust in graphic scenes which include fellatio and public masturbation. Nymphomaniac is the exact opposite of Blue is the Warmer Color whose examination of emotion was deeply erotic in and of itself. It displays an almost clinical approach to nymphomania similar to that of a gynecologist toward the female reproductive system. If you wanted to reduce the movie to psychology you could say that Joe had a rejecting mother who turned her back to her as she played solitaire and a loving physician father (Christian Slater). As her father dies in a hospital where the loss of his bodily functions is graphically portrayed, Joe's predatory sexuality reaches new heights. Volume I ends with Joe in an act of coitus interruptus crying out,

"I can't feel anything."

The sex games between Joe and her friend B (Sophia Kennedy Clark) and the use of the Fibonacci sequences as one of the many extracurricular film graphics (that include memories and newsreel footage) are part of the film's own peculiar form of Verfremdungseffekt which is curiously and perversely intimate. The notion of polyphony is a theme that emerges explicitly in final chapter of the Vol I, "The Little Organ School," in the discussion of Bach, but it constitutes the basic mode of disquisition. From the very beginning sequence when Seligman finds Joe lying in the street--a scene which has the threatening quality of German Expressionist masterpieces like Fritz Lang's M with its dirty brick passageways and water dripping on garbage can lids, there are two stories being told. Seligman is a representative of European culture and Joe's recollections are interspersed with his own memories of fly fishing which come to him by way of a classic treatise, the l7th Century writer Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler; Or, The Contemplative Man's Recreation. In these early sequences the act of picking up men is equated with the notion of fish and bait. (a nymph is by the way an undeveloped insect). Nymphomaniac is not an exploration of sexuality or desire or love. It's a classic compendium of information about the human species. Hopefully it will be cherished by generations of filmgoers in the same way that original editions of the Walton volume are preserved by rare book collectors today.

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}