Nymphomaniac is steeped in sex — passionate, dark, and sometimes downright dangerous sex. But Lars von Trier's new film (now available for purchase and rental) is not just about sex.
Nymphomaniac is a blatant exercise between the artist and his audience — his position as provocateur becoming the impetus for a long conversation about storytelling, resonance, and the malleability of truth. But it's the matter of consent that hits hardest, particularly in the film's final moments, which calls back to an earlier line:
"An induced take: When all other attempts fail, a dramatic provocation can get an otherwise completely passive fish to bite. They will react instinctively to the right provocation."
Von Trier is a master provocateur. At times, it is blatant and scandalous, as characters mutilate themselves in grief (Antichrist) or partake in all manner of problematic, on-screen sex (Nymphomaniac). But it can also be subtle. In Melancholia, von Trier explored his own depression while forcing the audience to experience it, first relaying the nonsensical forms depression can take (and many rail against), and then inciting hopelessness and depression with Earth's demise — and thus biting a thumb at the idea that pain is not the end of the world.
He pushes the audience to relate, while also tirelessly questioning himself and forcing himself into rigid boundaries, as he explained in a 2005 interview: "I look for boundaries which restrict my range of activity and aesthetic freedom. Then I can concentrate all my energy in this small space. It's very simple: when you're in a prison, you're in a better position to think about freedom."
Lars von Trier talks with the stars of Melancholia. | (Facebook.com/Melancholia)
Von Trier created such a prison for himself in 2011 while promoting Melancholia at Cannes. One question during a press conference led to stream-of-conscious babbling that ended with a very wry, very von Trierian joke that would later shock him as much as the press at the festival: "Okay, I'm a Nazi." The backlash that followed was a hard and fierce wakeup call for the filmmaker, and ultimately merged with another provocation, one that would seem entirely unrelated to anyone but von Trier. "My next film is a porn film with those two," von Trier had joked, referencing Melancholia stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Thus, Nymphomaniac was born, an off-hand joke about pornography merging with thoughts about meaning and provocation in the most unexpected way.
In Nymphomaniac, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) is a loner who happens upon a beaten and barely conscious Joe (Gainsbourg) in the dark alley neighboring his home. She refuses aid, but requests tea, and after his pressing, relays the long story of why she is a "bad human being."
Taking inspiration from the objects she sees in the room — a fish hook, a religious icon, a stain that looks like a gun — Joe tells a tale that often seems unbelievable, both in its audaciousness and coincidences. We can't be sure just how much of the story is real, and whether what we're seeing is her memory, the actual event, or his mind's adaptation of her words. She might be using the room to help remind her of real events, or she might be a Keyser Soze manipulator, creating a shocking story to provoke her host.
And indeed, her story is shocking and increasingly problematic, which might be the result of her increasing woe in life, or merely her attempts to convince this man that she IS a "bad human being," by making her story worse and worse until he will have no choice but to relent to her opinion and condemn her. But he refuses to, willfully challenging her opinion from beginning to end. Over and over again, Seligman finds a way to honor Joe's experiences, applying his world to her story and reframing it as a metaphor for fishing, or a beautiful manifestation of Fibonacci sequences.
She provokes him, noting that he's not aroused by her stories, and he relents that he's asexual. But Seligman is aroused — perhaps not physically, but certainly intellectually. His eyes brighten every time he sees a parallel between fishing and her sexual forays. He is invested in the image of her that he creates — morphing the idea of "nymph" as a girl into that of an insect on a lure, waiting to be eaten.
Joe challenges him: "How will you get the most out of my story? By believing in it, or not believing in it?" She doesn't appeal to truth, but gratification, and he responds to that. "I'm the best judge you can give your story to," he swears, before telling her he's asexual, which may be truth, or might just be a way to create a sense of comfort within her. Either way, he has found a way to be attracted to her — not through her story, but his absorption of it.
He successfully puts her at ease. When she finishes, hours later, she is sure she has found her first real friend. He is ideologically sound. He listened, he didn't condemn, and in fact, noted the gendered bend of her opinion. "You were a human being demanding your rights," Seligman swears, explaining how differently we'd perceive this story if it came from a man. He leaves her alone so that she might sleep and start to heal from the blows she's suffered.
But he doesn't leave her in peace. The so-called asexual man returns, stands over her in the darkness, unsheathes himself, and begins to masturbate, rubbing his penis against her, preparing it for sex much like Shia LaBeouf's Jerome did when he took Joe's virginity many years before. She wakes, astonished, says no, and grapples for her gun. The screen goes black. "But you f--ked thousands of men," Seligman whines. She fires the gun, and Nymphomaniac ends.
Von Trier is again challenging our perception of appearances (like in Dogville, the seemingly good, kind folk turn out to be monsters), and then startles the viewer out of the highly stylized story and into a jarring, deadly world of revenge. Yet as much as he challenges our perceptions of reality, and the personal expectations we create in life and art, there is one very clear message that has no compromise.
Provocation is not consent.
Seligman decides it's his right to force himself on her as she sleeps because she has had sex with many men. He sees her as his "induced take," the lure that sparks "the completely passive fish to bite." He doesn't care that she never showed him the slightest sexual interest or flirtation, and that she explicitly told him that she is done with sex. One minute, he swears she won't be disturbed, the next, he sneaks in and tries to take her. Her history convinced him that he had the right to sex — a perfect, extreme encapsulation of the idea that some women are just "asking for it."
Seligman's actions don't mean that all men would do this. It simply means that the darkness can manifest anywhere. The film skewers the idea that a woman's history has any bearing, or that a man's good deeds or public passivity mean that he is innocent.
It all boils down to that interview from 2005, where von Trier said:
"All my life I've been interested in the discrepancy between philosophy and reality, between conviction and its implementation. The general assumption is that all people are able to differentiate more or less equally between good and evil. But if this is the case, why does the world look like it does?"