You may have heard that Nymphomaniac, the new movie by Lars von Trier, is pornographic. You may know that the sexual acts depicted on screen are not simulated and that, over the course of four hours, the film features the sort of array of engaged genitalia you’d usually find only on the Internet’s more shadowy corners. All of that is true, even if the sex was performed by body doubles. None of it is relevant. Nymphomaniac may be many other things, but it is also a profoundly theological work of art and one of the most passionate apologias of Judaism ever attempted.
Signs that something more than smut is at stake arrive early and eerily: A man (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in a darkened alley, badly beaten. She refuses medical attention; he takes her home and serves her tea. She confides in him that she’s a nymphomaniac and a horrible person, he urges her to tell her story, setting off the series of flashbacks that make up the lion’s share of the film. But before his convalescing guest sinks into her tale of depravity, the soft-spoken host tells us a little about himself. His name is Seligman, which, he says, means “happy man.” He is Jewish. His family is anti-Zionist, which is not the same, he explains, as being anti-Semitic. He loves rugelach, and eats them with a cake fork. Gainsbourg’s character, Joe, replies that eating rugelach with a cake fork is unmanly. Out of this preposterous premise a conversation erupts, and it does not die down until the film’s shocking end. We’ve witnessed it before: It is, with only very few stretches of the imagination, the conversation between Judaism and Christianity, and lest you think that von Trier is making some kind of essentialist argument here, he casts the quintessentially non-Semitic Skarsgård as the Jew and Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter as the Christian.
Or, more accurately, the Christ: Audaciously, perversely, blasphemously, Joe is Christ inverted. At 12, she experiences an out-of-bodyish involuntary orgasm that mirrors the transfiguration of Jesus. Instead of being accompanied, as was Jesus, by Moses and Elijah, Joe sees visions of Messalina—the sexually insatiable wife of the Roman emperor Claudius—and the great whore of Babylon. That erogenous revelation sets the tone—Joe’s entire life becomes a quest for more perfect forms of transcendence. “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people,” she says very early on in the movie, “is that I’ve always demanded more of the sunset, more spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That is perhaps my only sin.”
Seligman is her polar opposite. Everything he learned in life, he learned from the books that line his small apartment. When Joe tells him her sordid stories, he relates by finding parallels everywhere, commenting that the frequency of her copulations forms a Fibonnaci sequence, say, or that the way potential lovers arrange themselves in a given space corresponds with the patterns displayed by salmon fish swimming upstream. Such banter is both hilarious and outrageous—even the most indulgent viewer is likely to throw up her hands when Seligman brings gematria into the coital mix—but it is also astonishingly poignant. What Seligman offers Joe isn’t just a series of amused asides; it’s interpretation, layers of meaning that turn her tortured endeavors from a futile pursuit of salvation to a fathomable, even sensible, way of being here in this world.
More than comforting Joe, then, Seligman is rebuking St. Paul. Judaism, the stern disciple had famously judged, was the religion of law while Christianity was the religion of love. But the film’s tagline urges us to “Forget about love,” and its central framing device, the convoluted conversation between the two strangers, puts us all in Seligman’s position. Like him, we, too, are bearing witness to Joe’s sensational life, and like him we understand the dangers inherent in her spiritual appetites. For Joe—you can tell this just by looking at Gainsbourg’s face, a small ocean of wisdom and pain—is after much more than fleeting feel-good moments of carnal bliss. She’s out seeking her soul: In one of the film’s only heavy-handed notes, von Trier repeatedly shows us snippets of Joe as a child, walking through a barren forest with her father and talking about the affinity between the souls of trees and the souls of men.
That the only path Joe knows to her soul passes between her legs has everything to do with her religious ideas. As he had in the past—most notably in Antichrist and Melancholia, his two previous films—von Trier is arguing here that our thirst for transcendence, our desire to rise above the brutishness of the human condition, can only lead to disaster. We may yearn for love, but we can’t handle love. It’s too wild, too mad, too incandescent for us to contain. As is faith. As is guilt. As is any other human emotion worth experiencing—we can never forsake them, and yet we must never attempt them in too great a dose. Only Christ can climb the mountain and radiate with divine light; if we mere mortals tried the same trick, we’d likely burn away.
The alternative to Christ is Seligman. A perfect embodiment of Jewish eschatology, he believes, like the sages of old, that there aren’t any fundamental differences between our own time and the days of the Messiah to come and that all attempts at redemption must focus not on some desperate thrust heavenward but on a series of small and incremental earthly steps. If you believe this—if you believe that everything you do is an important step toward salvation—interpretation becomes your steeliest sword. If you are your own savior, and if every one of your acts facilitates the saving, you are likely to read a lot into everything. That’s how we got the Talmud, the ultimate book of ordering the world, and that’s how we got a grinning Seligman, alone in his apartment with his books, trying to do the same.
And von Trier, presumably, can relate. Three years ago (I’ve written about this before, but it is worth repeating), the director was booed off the stage at the Cannes Film Festival for making comments some boorish pundits took to be sympathetic to Nazism. “I really wanted to be a Jew,” he said then, in response to a question about using Wagner in the Melancholia soundtrack, “and then I found out that I was really a Nazi. Which also gave me some pleasure. I understand Hitler. I think I understand the man; he’s not what you would call a good guy. But I understand much about him. And I sympathize with him a little bit.”
The comment requires parsing. There is, of course, nothing inherent about finding out late in life that your father was not a Jew but a German that rewards you with any special insight into the mind of the führer. Von Trier, as is his habit on and off the screen, was staging a jolly provocation. But his provocations are never empty: The pain and the confusion caused by this shift in identity, and the burden of its historical connotations, are all real, and they merit further parsing. Raised by parents who were committed communists and zealous nudists, the director nonetheless grew up with a vague sense of Jewish identity, as his father, Ulf Trier, was a Jew. But Ulf Trier, it turned out, wasn’t really von Trier’s father: As she lay dying, the director’s mother confessed that his biological father was really her boss, a German by the name of Fritz Michael Hartmann.
“Before she died,” von Trier recalled the moment in a 2005 interview with the German weekly Die Zeit, “my mother told me to be happy that I was the son of this other man. She said my foster father had had no goals and no strength. But he was a loving man. And I was very sad about this revelation.” Hartmann, the mother said, had come from a long line of classical musicians, and she believed that by becoming pregnant with his child she would produce an artistic genius. “You then feel manipulated when you really do turn out to be creative,” von Trier mused. “If I’d known that my mother had this plan, I would have become something else. I would have shown her. The slut!”
But one never knows the plan, and one can never become anything else but what one is already destined to be. That’s the beauty and the tragedy of predestination, which both Judaism and Christianity, to an extent, believe. But it doesn’t leave us helpless. We have a choice. We can choose, like Joe, to be defiant and attempt to sever all that makes us human. Or we can choose, like Seligman, to embrace that age-old rabbinic wisdom that tells us that everything is foretold and yet permission is granted: permission to interpret the divine plan any way we choose, permission to believe in it or not, permission to claim space for ourselves even in the looming shadow of the Lord. That’s Seligman, alright. “The concept of religion is interesting,” he says later on in the film, “like the concept of sex. But you won’t find me on my knees with regards to either.”
We can hear von Trier’s amen to that with every frame of Nymphomaniac. It took him a while to come to the realization. He had tried exploring the depredations of love, in Breaking the Waves and other movies. And he had certainly contemplated the law, directing a film, The Five Obstructions, based on nothing but a series of strict cinematic edicts posed to a fellow filmmaker. He finally got it right. Forget its obsessions with the flesh—Nymphomaniac is a godly film.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.