By — LEONARDO MALAGUTI
Translated by — NICOLE SYLVIA BOURIS
“[…]porn is entirely in the mind of the beholder. Will even a single audience member find these scenes erotic? That is hard to imagine.”
Don’t call it porn, you would be disappointed. Don’t even trust people who accuse Lars Von Trier of being misogynous, because they are evidently lying. By paraphrasing the title of the famous assay by Nattiez on Richard Wagner – Wagner androgynous– we can easily get rid of these captious rumors, and mostly we can underline a solid connection in between themes and methods of the Danish maestro and of the German genius. Don’t call it a porn because Nymphomaniac, the story of the sexual life of a nymphomaniac, makes a joke of who tries to dig up some kind of scandal in it; this because the nature of the images and the subjects, which is so explicit, is outlined so much to result mathematical and, paradoxically, asexual. Speaking about what concerns misogyny in this opera, just like what happens in much of his filmography, Lars Von Trier is one of the most feminine contemporary directors, probably he is part of those who eat brioches with the dessert fork, defined by Joe, as the main character played by Charlotte Gainsburg, unmanly. Here, though, we are not talking about sexual tendencies, but human ones, ambiguity of souls’ genres: its not a random thing that the only two male characters (Seligman, played by Stellan SkarsgÅrd, and Jerôme, interpreted by Shia LaBeouf) both share this peculiarity.
The movie has a theatrical mold: a man, Seligman, finds a woman, Joe, lying wounded on the edge of an alley, and, being a good Samaritan, he offers her his hospitality in his own home where the woman accepts to tell him her story. The past locations are realistic, characterized by a bright photography and by the use of a hand-held camera, whereas both the street and Seligman’s room are explicitly fake places, recreated in studio and mainly filmed with slow movements of the camera or through steady shots and artificially illuminated. The conversation in between the two evolves just like it would do on stage, acting as a counterpoint to flashbacks (often nearly comical), which accompany the story told by the woman; it could seriously resemble a therapy session: she tells her story with no inhibitions. He listens and comments, curious and amused he tries to give her his psychoanalytical-metaphoric interpretation about the events without any generic opinions and demonstrating a dangerously ambiguous innocence, mostly if you consider his age and his great knowledge and culture that, actually he doesn’t strive at all to hide. As much as Seligman is calm and a bourgeois man, Joe is uninhibited, impulsive, anarchist; her fragility, going on with the narration, mutes in auto determination strength. Joe and Seligman are the two ends of one same board, super sexuality and asexuality, but in a more broadened context, neutrality and anarchy. They represent both of Von Trier’s souls that are being compared to define a better vision of the world, but, mostly, to break down the idea of an order based on a hypocrite and nonjudgmental concept of the so called politically correct behavior (with many and very evident references to personal episodes, such as being described as “non grateful person” at the Cannes Festival).
“The human qualities can be expressed in one word: hypocrisy. We elevate those who say right but mean wrong and mock those who say wrong but mean right.” (Joe)
Joe thinks in empirical, mathematical, rational terms, Seligman, instead is sentimental, literary, he recalls religion and books: they are Nature and Culture, point of views that are apparently irreconcilable, mutually exploring themselves. Sex is for Joe a mathematical expression, her mania can be resolved with Fibonacci’s sequence, where every lover she had can be summoned up to the previous one creating one infinite chain, becoming, just like she affirms, one only lover. Though, when in this whole polyphony the cantus firmus, the main element of the composition, is love, the whole mechanism breaks down and Joe enters a crisis because incapable of managing it. As if love is interpreted in another language for her, a whole different semantic universe that looks impossible to connect with Joe’s scheduled life. The only person in Joe’s life that is able to understand both ways of thinking (hers and Seligman’s) is Joe’s father: ethereal and enigmatic figure, he is idealized by his daughter’s worshipping fantasies because of her living a full oedipal complex: he represents the example to reach, the connection between Nature and Culture, between intelligible and sensible. The solution is though an ephemeral mirage, unreachable, just like every ideality. The solution of the conflict is in the middle.
As previously said, the main characters of the movie are ambiguous. Starting from Joe’s transgender name, she is a manly woman: her nymphomania is nothing else but the Don Giovanni syndrome feminine counterpart, only brought to its pathological climax. She thinks like a man, she acts like a man, though she suffers like a woman. Seligman and his being naturally (and not for any type of choice, this is a main point) asexual, represents Joe’s other half, the neutral one: that half where all of the forces are present yet null. The name Sligman, “Happy man” or even better “the blessed one”, should declare the serenity that the angelic man finds in an androgynous balance. Unfortunately, in his case it is a spurious, unfinished androgyny destined of remaining unresolved due to the fact of not being expressed. As already suggested in the previous two chapters of the Depression Trilogy, Von Trier believes that the perfect androgynous, the rejoining of the two platonic halves, completes himself only through research, acceptance and withdrawal of his own sexuality and, in more broadened terms, of himself. In Antichrist, she tries to deprive her husband and her of any type of pleasure through sexual mutilation, in Melancholia, Justin, after a long battle against depression, welcomes with no regrets the end of the world and finally in Nymphomaniac, Joe, after experiencing every shade of sexuality, becomes capable of giving it up, so to try to end desire. Seligman, whose experience is only theoretical, cannot renounce to something he doesn’t own and brags an innocence that doesn’t exists because it is actually ideal, product of the oppressive bourgeois society.
“Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from sunset. More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.” (Joe)
This is what nourishes Joe’s nymphomania: the spasmodic research of a more broadened experience, a more spectacular one, the sensibility that goes further ahead the borders of one’s perceptive sphere, the pure unity that is worth more than the sum of its components. Tragic and sublime, orgasm and grief just blend harmoniously; but mostly the certainty that this via crucis, this backward trip from East to West, should be the only way, yet so uncertain.
For Von Trier it is just the same.
Nymphomaniac is a strange hybrid: to leave behind the excessive aesthetic romanticism of the previous Melancholia (“It is a mawkish movie, it is a girly movie!’ said the director himself), Von Trier looks for the death of romanticism and he allows himself some kind of freedom of experimenting that brings us back to his more anarchic and trendy movies (such as Idioten). He plays with the story and with the spectator, jumping from being comic to tragic, sacred to profane. He demonstrates a creative energy that must have been a great spurt of fresh air for him. But, despite everything, it is not just an exercise of style, as a matter of fact, the esthetic sublime of his most recent works remains obscure, even though it is always present in some playful way to support the philosophical core of his opera. Melancholia wanted to be a dive in the German romanticism, in a particularly Wagnerian mood; coming out again, not everything just slid away, on the contrary. The already present connecting points with Wagner got even stronger and internalized, generating not only random tributes but also actual formal traces. The androgyny theme and the coming over of the desire are the first two common elements in the operas of the two maestros; another common element can be traced in the narration, which is very close to the Bildungsroman form (here though, differently with the Goetheian definition, the story ends up with the separation between the protagonist and the society), often even closer to the way a fairy-tale is told (the fact that the story is told beside a bed at night and the fact that it presents many allegories and “unnatural” coincidences, just like Seligman himself underlines at a certain point). The decision of making the protagonist herself the narrator of her own life experiences through long chapters (in the movie no action, or nearly), brings us to think about many Wagnerian operas’ scheme, where nothing really happens in the scenic present, but the episodes are told by the characters through long flashbacks in a first-person narration format.
The most present Wagnerian layout is the Leitmotiv one, not intended in the usual cinematographic way, whereas in the original dramaturgical mode: specific musical themes which are connected to a determined character, an object or a particular mood, twist themselves and come back cyclically making some kind of connection with what they were originally linked to. Von Trier uses this peculiar technique not by choosing an original sound track, but instead using a mix of classical and modern pieces, to which he assigns his personal meanings. In this way the Valzer of the Jazz Suite n.2 by Shostakovich becomes the playful background theme of the free sexual experimentation, the Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano by Cesar Franck accompanies instead the meditation, epiphany and communion moments with Nature, and The Little Organ Book : Ich Ruf Zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ by J.S. Bach represents instead the funeral march to the feeling of love. At a certain point of the second volume Von Trier dares even more: by picking the Lascia ch’io pianga by Handel he actually repeats the agony and frustration of the prologue of the Antichrist, creating a sentimental connection that starts up an immediate reaction of estrangement, while for some seconds the borders in-between one movie and the other just fade away.
This was only the censured version for the great distribution. We’re looking forward for the five hour director’s cut, probably only in the dvd.