The advertisements for Nymphomaniac feature close-ups of the film’s actors pictured in a moment of orgasm. Each photograph seems strange, surreal, distorted. Most of the actors have their eyes closed and their mouths open. The effect of placing all of these images side-by-side is even more bizarre and affecting. What is in that moment of pleasure that makes human beings look so strange and otherworldly? What is in that instant where the brain is so overwhelmed by sensation that parts of it literally shut down, where we are so wrapped up in pleasure, our potential to experience pain actually diminishes?
Nymphomaniac is a film about human want—not female want specifically, though Joe insists on calling herself a nymphomaniac, rather than a sex addict. She sees the former as a more empowering term than the latter. The primary feminist criticism of Lars von Trier’s films is that he tortures his female subjects. In reality, von Trier is one of the few male directors who is not afraid to allow his female characters existential terror, which is what Nymphomaniac is ultimately about, the twin drives that define human experience: the drive towards ecstasy and the fear of annihilation.
We view women’s sexual journeys differently than men’s sexual journeys, particularly because we still have a hard time seeing women as sexual agents. In Nymphomaniac we see a woman who is in clear pursuit of sexual pleasure. But what does female pursuit look like? For von Trier the female prowler is the nymph the fisherman uses to catch his prey, an object that hangs above the bed where Joe [Charlotte Gainsbourg] tells her story to Seligman [Stellan Skarsgård], a middle-aged and self-described asexual man, who takes Joe in after finding her badly beaten in an alley. The rapport between Joe and Seligman is viciously funny, with Seligman often interrupting Joe to make comparisons between her wildly erotic stories with fly-fishing, music, math and literature. Throughout the film, von Trier asks the viewer how they view Joe: Is she the lure, or is she the one casting the line?
Nymphomaniac walks a line between camp and earnestness. Young Joe’s [played by Stacy Martin] sexual escapades are presented with a matter-of-factness that can be endearingly humorous (in one scene Joe describes how difficult it was to keep to her schedule of having sex with 10 or more men a day, in addition to keeping a full-time job) as well as devastating (as is the case when the wife of one of Joe’s conquests comes to see Joe after her husband packs his bags and leaves her).
A viewer appreciates Nymphomaniac’s comic flourishes, especially since they seem to signify a tremendous amount of growth for von Trier, who is known as a director who is unflinching in his look at fear, sadness and loss. One of the things I love most about Nymphomaniac is its insistence on seeing sex as something that is important. In our sex-saturated culture, we see pornographic images everywhere, but the sex act itself is presented as something that is as ubiquitous as it is disposable. For Joe, sex is not about connecting to another person, but about collecting new sensations, and love seems an obstacle to that, rather than a final destination.
Female sexual hunger is generally portrayed as acceptable when it is about turning on a man as much as it is about a woman getting what she wants. We don’t mind 50 Shades of Grey narratives, where a beautiful young ingénue is taught about her body by an older, controlling sadist, and we accept pop stars like Beyoncé, for whom sexual empowerment means giving sexual access in exchange for putting a ring on it.
In Nymphomaniac: Volume I, the female desire to be receptive during sex is not seen as synonymous with the need to submit. In Joe’s first sexual encounter she directly asks a man [Shia LaBeouf] to take her virginity. Before they have sex she waits patiently on the small, ordinary bed, while he tries and tries to get a motorcycle started.
This first experience of sex is a letdown for her—three thrusts while she is on her back, followed by five as he turns her over on her stomach, with no talking about her wants or needs from the experience. Joe is a bit shaken afterwards, less by the idea that she has been violated, and more by the recognition that the guy who took her virginity was not the worldly man she thought he was. As he tries to get the motorcycle started again, Joe puts on her underwear, walks to the bike, fixes it for him quickly, then abruptly leaves—not a victim, just a person who clearly knows what she needs, wants, and doesn’t want.
Joe’s emotional coldness and blank kind of beauty will certainly be off-putting to some viewers. She is cavalier when she propositions men for sex, only slightly empathetic when her lover’s wife shows up at her doorstep with their children in tow, and almost completely emotionally numb when her father dies in a hospital, even though she still strangely “lubricates,” as she puts it, when mourning his loss. But the desperation of the last scene of Volume I punctures her seeming lack of affect throughout the rest of the film, as Joe and her lover, with whom she has fallen in love with, fuck wildly, and Joe finds, to her tremendous shock and dismay, that she can’t feel anything at all.
Is love the secret ingredient to sex, as her friend B [Sophie Kennedy Clark] whispers to a dismayed Joe early on in Volume I? For von Trier, sex isn’t simple enough to be a single equation. Sometimes sex is violent and dirty and compulsive and sad. Sometimes it’s ecstatic and glorious and loving and spiritual and true. More often than not, it’s funny—the ridiculous lengths human beings are willing to go for a moment of pleasure and yet, how much that empty little animal compulsion has the power to drive us, to wake us up, to make us feel alive.