There’s a lot of love for Lars von Trier these days. Despite making off-color jokes about being a Nazi, for which I can forgive him, and launching perhaps the most sustained and unrelenting assault on the female body throughout his career that the film industry has ever seen, for which I can’t, there exists an irrepressible respect for his work among movie critics.
Words such as “outrageous” and “provocative” have abounded in descriptions of von Trier’s latest flick, Nymph()maniac, a film so avant garde that the word can’t even be spelled properly. David Denby in the New Yorker called it “an obsessive, violent, and at times remarkably eccentric sex epic that is often brilliant and never simple-minded or dull.” Sheila O’Malley at rogerebert.com called it “fascinating, engaging and often didactic.” Manhola Dargis was slightly less effusive, though she insists “you’re unlikely to turn away.” And our own Liel Leibovitz called it a “godly film.”
I have to admit that I am mystified by this praise. How is a film that uses porn stars’ genitalia and movie stars’ heads in any way avant garde? Isn’t this precisely the dichotomy on which our entire society is horrifically based—that sex work is shameful and therefore unworthy of benefits and acclaim, while movie acting is not sex work but art? Mr. von Trier has literally reiterated this deeply Christian dichotomy on the bodies of his actors. And this is supposed to be provocative?
Indeed, for a film that sucked so epically on so many levels, this is my main gripe: that it pretends to be revolutionary, when it is in fact the most retrograde, and reactionary film to hit theaters in a while. And everyone seems to have drunk the Kool-aid.
The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin as old and young Joe, a self-proclaimed “Nymphomaniac,” who is discovered by the 60-ish Jew Seligman (Stelan Skarsgard), a self-proclaimed virgin (I am not making this up!) who has the bad fortune to eat his rugelach with a fork, making him worthy of being mocked by Joe as—I kid you not—“feminine.” And there you have it: the film and everyone in it hates anything feminine.
For example, in volume 2, Joe reports a mystical experience she has as a teenager where she has a spontaneous orgasm. Now, it may surprise you to learn that spontaneous orgasm does not happen. But it should not surprise the rest of us, cognizant of that fact, that a film so dedicated to male fantasies would also reveal that the Ur-male fantasy of the 21st century is not a sex act but a woman who requires no stimulation in order to climax.
With phrases like “If I asked you to take my virginity, would that be a problem?” and “Fill all my holes” (a sentence uttered by no woman ever), the film reveals its true commitment to a certain kind of male-fantasy. It’s porn for the 21st century man: he wants you to climax, but he doesn’t want to have to make it happen. He wants you to love sex, but he doesn’t want you to have any complicated parts he doesn’t understand. This movie is not about female sexuality at all, but about the very conventional fantasies of men.
And here is the truth about Nymphomaniac: there is nothing actually sexually transgressive in the film, which is studded with linguistic gems such as “I’m just a bad human being,” “My mother was a cold bitch,” and, my favorite, “I discovered my power as a woman.” Among the other totally, despicably conventional moments of the film are the fact that though Joe loves sex, her first encounter which she initiates manages somehow to be both vaginal and anal rape; the idea that women have sex for other things (candy, competition, a free ride on a train) and thus are not quite as capable as men of enjoying it an sich; the fact that every woman in the film is gorgeous, while the men are meh; Joe’s commitment to figuring out what men want and thereby driving them “wild”; the “other woman” is blamed for breaking up the marriage rather than the cheating husband, and so forth.
Nymphomaniac is modeled on the erotic journals of the 18th-century, a genre that was filled with men masquerading literarily as women to get each other off with all the same mistakes of female anatomy as von Trier exhibits. Indeed, 90 percent of the film is cribbed directly from Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill, from the letters standing in for the names of her conquests to the one true love who keeps reappearing, to the S&M scene and then its reversal, it’s all there in 1749. Yes, 1749. We’ve come a long way since the days when men got off on the idea of women getting off on them getting off, in the sense of not having come any way at all.
Now, there are those who might argue that von Trier is aware of all of this, and that Nymphomaniac is a parody of masculine fantasies and the culture that reifies them. And there are those who view the film as a disquisition of Jewish thought, as Liel Leibovitz argues, in which Joe represents an orgasmic Jesus seeking transcendence, while the virginal Jew Seligman teaches her that interpretation and law, rather than the quest for the spirit, is the true path to enlightenment. But to cast Joe’s appetite for sex, which is clearly explained by the film as an attempt to dull pain and recover self-esteem (revolutionary, I know!) as a search for transcendence, as Leibovitz does, is to accept the film’s terms that a woman trying to please men sexually is the only form of transcendence open to women. Leibovitz quotes Joe’s line from early in the film, when she says, “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more of the sunset, more spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon.” But careful viewing reveals that Joe’s sexual pleasure is often compromised, and more often about pleasing men. Furthermore, to cast a man as the interpolator of female sexual experience, precisely recapitulating the infuriating terms of Nymphomaniac itself, is not Jewish exceptionalism; it is misogyny.
So why do we put up with it? Why do critics laud him? Instead of looking for ways to forgive von Trier yet again for his disgust with all things female and his complete and inexplicable confusion regarding female anatomy and pleasure, why not instead demand more from our art?
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.