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The controversy and moralism inherent in Lars Von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac'

Stacy Martin as the young Joe in Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac"
Stacy Martin as the young Joe in Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac"
Zentropa Entertainments



About once every decade or so, a major filmmaker attempts to make a film whose subject is wholly sex. Bernardo Bertolucci did it in 1973 with "Last Tango in Paris". Stanley Kubrick gave us "Eyes Wide Shut" in 1999. And now, Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier has created a two-part movie entitled"Nymphomaniac". The first part hit movie theaters on Friday, March 21, a day after the second installment arrived on VOD. The first installment has been on VOD since March 7.

It’s a daunting task to attempt something profound about a subject as personal and intimate as sex, but Von Trier has managed to make a serious movie about it. Yes, it’s outrageous at times as he unflinchingly shows the facets of its varied practices. More often than not however, the film is an incredibly thoughtful and spiritual one. And there’s nothing wrong with Von Trier’s predilection for provocation, though many are again acting 'outraged' in their assessment of the latest by Von Trier.

Richard Brody writes about how he feels that Von Trier is excessive in a withering takedown in The New Yorker this week ( He's put off by the fact that Joe, the female protagonist, is so joyless in her exploration of sex. But that is precisely the point of Von Trier’s film. This story is about a woman for whom sex has become a passionless proposition. She’s become immune to its pleasures after so many partners and deviations. She no longer feels anything with anyone.

Throughout both films, Von Trier argues for sexuality that has a deeper intimacy than mere penetration of the body. He’s arguing for a connection that inhabits the heart, mind and soul. Still, some critics can only see the excess of Von Trier's visuals – namely the body parts he shows unflinchingly, as well as the scenes that linger on BDSM practices. Those critics simply fail to see the forest for the trees. (You can argue there’s a pun in there if you want to.)

Granted, this material is challenging. And the two movies are not for the faint of heart. The exploration of Joe's sexuality starts at an early age and we see all kinds of indiscriminate encounters and some NC-17 scenes with both the teen girl (played in an auspicious debut by newcomer Stacy Martin) and as a woman in her middle years (played by veteran Von Trier player Charlotte Gainsbourg). Indeed, the scenes that seem to be getting the most wrath are those where the adult Joe resorts to sadomasochistic practices to try to feel something again.

Watching anyone’s backside ripped by a lash, whether its Patsy’s in "12 Years A Slave", or Joe’s in the second installment of "Nymphomaniac", is trying. And there are times when it seems more like something out of a horror movie here what with its themes of torture and bloodletting. However, that doesn’t make Von Trier a misogynist or pervert or a freak as too many are suggesting ( His movies delve into the horrors of life and this film is no exception. But it doesn't make him an exploiter.

He's a provocateur, but the true daring of Von Trier’s work here is in the attempt to seriously examine a person’s sexuality and all the parts of her complex journey. And he succeeds at that as he is willing to show the good, the bad and the ugly. Without pulling his punches, or dare I say, whips.

The two lead actresses give daring performances here. They're physically naked and emotionally so as well. Their work reminded me of the brilliant performances by the French actresses Adele Exarchoupolos and Lea Seydoux in last year's sexually explicit "Blue is the Warmest Color" ( Von Trier gets terrific and committed performances from all his performers here, including Shia Labeouf, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe and Jamie Bell. Especially noteworthy are Stellan Skarsgard as Joe's listener absorbing all of her crazy stories, and Uma Thurman, who is heartbreaking and funny playing a cuckolded wife in the first installment.

Some of the sexual escapades are hilarious, others mortifying. And others are explicit enough that they make you wonder if prosthetics are being utilized. That occasionally takes you out of the film a bit, but by and large, the film is captivating in its entire, lengthy running time.

Von Trier is clearly interested in subjects that most people are uncomfortable with, and good for him and us. We need more movies that truly challenge us. And despite his pushing the visual limits of cinema, what he’s really pushing here is the idea that sex needs more connection beyond physical arousal and stimulation to be truly exceptional. By the end of the movie, Joe realizes that the most truly intimate and satisfactory moments in her life haven’t been in all the lust and risk, but rather in the intimacy experienced in telling her tale to the avid listener.

It’s honest conversation, not coitus, which has brought her the truest sense of wholeness. By describing her sex life to him, and speaking candidly about her experiences when probed by his curiosity, the morose Joe realizes that her vast resume of pleasures of the flesh has left her void of true intimacy. So despite all the claims otherwise, Von Trier’s true agenda here is moralistic.

But the blogosphere and much of the media would rather bellyache about seeing Gainsbourg’s pubic hair or LeBeouf in the buff. Perhaps their discombobulation is really about the movie's female protagonist, one who is deeply involved in her own sexuality. Is it too formidable for some? Maybe that's what really has got so many hot under the collar.

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