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From 2012 until March 2014, Michael Atkinson has written the excellent column Viva Mabuse! at SundanceNow. (The archives, well worth perusing, are here.) We're proud to have him now bringing that column's insights and appreciations to the Voice.
Is Lars von Trier the least appropriate choice among living name filmmakers to tackle, repeatedly or at all, the cosmically slippery topic of female sexuality and its social abuses? Maybe Abel Ferrara offers competition, or Takashi Miike. Kevin Smith? My money is on von Trier, if only because he insists on trespassing on this troubled turf, and doing so with a map he drew from daydreams.
Nymphomaniac is the longest, most ambitious movie ever made dedicated to a subject its filmmaker knows nearly nothing about, which leaves a nasty dangler: the question of what exactly von Trier does know about, or more exactly, how much of what he thinks he knows about women, their vaginas, and their sexual politics, tends to reflect what he actually knows, or wants, in his bedroom late at night.
Which is to say, Nymphomaniac is floridly, lavishly masturbatory, and it doesn’t take much to imagine it as an effort to satisfy the inner teen Lars, rejected and horny and wondering why women don’t just fuck – fuck him, or any other guy, but really him – as wantonly and indiscriminately as he’d like them to, as indiscriminately as he’d like to fuck them. The film’s action often appears to be set on planet Lars, where his heroine starts a militant anti-romance girls club (they’re rebelling against love, you see), rolls dice to decide which of her overbooked liaisons to pursue or drop, lubricates at her father’s deathbed, gives birth by caesarean so her "cunt" won’t lose sensitivity, and sits in a horsewhipping sadist’s waiting room with other women patiently eager for a drubbing. It’s a litany of notions that might occur to a frustrated 16-year-old boy who’s never touched a breast.
Von Trier is crafty about contextualizing this yen, and his scandal-seeking missile of a movie packs a conscientious thematic thrust hearkening back to de Sade – namely, the notion that "love" and every socialized tendril of it is merely a surrender of autonomy, and therefore something to be rebelled against. To rebel is to rebel in extremis – half-hearted defiance is no defiance at all. What was once a Romantic notion of love-as-destiny gets turned on its ass, mutating into a committed dance with death and damnation. This translates fictionally, in everything from de Sade to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, Agnes Varda’s definitive Vagabond and a wealth of French fiction, to self-destruction (spiritually or physically or both) as the definitive act of hyper-autonomy, which, in terms of feminist texts, is a way to highlight the absence of such in society at large. A woman who self-immolates, particularly by way of sexual heedlessness and masochism, is the ultimate social insurrectionist.
In thoroughly felt fiction, at least. Varda did it best, because unlike von Trier she didn’t resort to semi-porn, or restrict her heroine’s resistance to sexual roles. Von Trier has been to the oppressed-woman well many times, in various forms, from Breaking the Waves (1996) onward, and when he sticks to undidactic melodrama, in the unfettered Douglas Sirk–Grace Metalious sense, he can soar. (2000's Dancer in the Dark, with its vividly unsexualized use of Björk, remains potent and unobjectionable.) But since it’s a dialectical dialogue, Nymphomaniac is dependent entirely on its political-psychological ideas, which are bunk. Countering Charlotte Gainsbourg’s confessor is Stellan Skarsgard’s bookworm hermit, whose function is to interrogate "nymphomania" as a clinical reality and as a state of moral turpitude, but whose structuralist associations (the Fibonacci sequence, Bach’s polyphony, the stations of the cross, fly-fishing, James Bond lore) at best suggest a cloistered cluelessness that echoes the director’s. If only Nymphomaniac had had that idea deliberately built into its helices: that the receptional perspective within the film, Seligman’s, is in fact the naïve director’s, a move that would have created an unreliable-narrator feedback loop and pushed this distended monsterpiece toward a Robbe-Grillet–ian auto-analysis. That’s daring – making a four-hour epic not just talking about but manifesting one’s own agonized gender ignorance.
Unfortunately, von Trier never takes on this touchy idea. He instead seems to find profundity in both Seligman’s meaningless detours and his heroine’s guilelessly compulsive copulating and masochism. In what is perhaps meant to be the film’s most scandalous moment, she even rebels against group therapy for sex addiction. Her drive is not a disease, she asserts, but who she essentially is. Through the murk of the film’s sex politics you detect the axiomatic equation that compulsive sex for a woman naturally escalates to wanting to be beaten to a bloody mess, and therefore that sex for women in general is largely a matter of subjugation. People with actual vaginas might argue the point, even those idly titillated by Fifty Shades of Grey.
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