Lars von Trier is a great filmmaker, but Nymphomaniac is not a great film. It may not even be a good film. There’s a chance, in fact, that it’s a bad film. If predictability was insight, if the familiar was shocking, if everyone hadn’t already watched a billion hours of Internet porn, Nymphomaniac might be the movie Lars von Trier thought he was making.
Von Trier’s greatest strength and weakness has always been his eagerness to provoke, to say and show and explore those things a little beyond—or in many cases far beyond—the bounds of good taste, of polite conversation, of reason and maturity. And more often than not there have been glorious discoveries out there in the space where a lot of filmmakers and other artists won’t go, and they make it all worthwhile. We need artists like von Trier. He ignores the rules. He reminds us that rules are arbitrary. But there are times when his ventures exist merely for their own sake. There are times when the only thing von Trier is really doing on the screen is pursuing these extremes, not with a purpose or even a spirit of discovery, but because he can.
“I’ve led you wherever I liked,” he often says through his work. “Now you care, and you’re a fool. And now I’ll punish you for it.”
There are moments in nearly all his films, usually in the last ten minutes, when von Trier takes things too far. Not the I-can’t-handle-the-truth kind of too far. Not the artistic bravery kind of too far. It’s the kind of too far that’s self-defeating. It’s the kind of too far where creative abandon becomes calculating self-promotion. Or worse, idle self-regard. At these moments, his obvious mastery of the medium is simply betrayed and cheapened by his childish impulse toward predictable contrarianism. It’s as if his need to defeat expectations is so complete that he even wants to defeat our expectation that he’ll make great films. Nymphomaniac: Vol. II amounts to a constant betrayal of von Trier’s talents.
The first volume of Nymphomaniac is merely dull. It’s a plane taxiing down a runway, forever. Predictable is the last thing von Trier has ever been, but his recounting of Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) life into her 20s is a numbing drumbeat of cliché and one-dimensional metaphor: the early experience with orgasm; the systematic seduction of men on a train with a trampy friend; the flatness of the seduction-as-fly-fishing analogy; the remorseless destruction of families in the pursuit of sexual pleasure.
Vol. I is barely more than the first five or six shallowest things you think of when you hear the word ‘nymphomaniac,’ simply enacted by a bunch of brave actors who ought to be putting their talents to better use. Perhaps we’re meant to be distracted from the obviousness of it all by the endless parade of flesh and fucking, but if that was von Trier’s intention, he’s gravely misjudged a 21st century audience. How much room is there to shock people with sex any more?
My brightest hope coming out of Vol. I was that von Trier was toying with us, lulling us into a comfortable, slightly disappointed place only to deliver the knockout blow in the second half. Alas, this is not the case. The second volume is just as predictable as the first, but twice as willfully puerile as anything he’s ever done. Vol. I ends on Joe’s reunion with her most recurring and meaningful lover, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and, as if anything approaching actual love is anathema to Joe’s very nature, her crying out in the film’s final moments, while having sex with Jerome, that she “can’t feel anything.” Indeed, Vol. II charts the disintegration of her relationship with Jerome, and her efforts to overcome her complete genital desensitization.
The mystery here is how one of the most courageous filmmakers in the world could tackle a daring subject in a daring way and make something so boring. But really it’s no mystery at all. Von Trier doing an explicit film about a nymphomaniac is just too easy. It’s not the sort of arrangement that was ever really likely to drive him to his best work. Von Trier doing a musical? Yes, that’s the kind of skewed idea that will bring out the best in an artist as stubborn as von Trier. Von Trier doing an apocalypse movie? Again, perfect—the implied expectations of genre give von Trier something to rebel against, they lay out a well-trod path from which he can gleefully deviate. But Lars von Trier, oft-reviled misogynist and provocateur, making a semi-hardcore opus about a woman’s experience with compulsive sexuality? It sounds can’t-miss; it sounds like the sort of thing you should wait for eagerly, as I did. But in retrospect, it was doomed to failure: There are too few obstacles challenging him, there are too few people expecting him to fail, there’s too little being dictated to him. This is von Trier collapsing in on his own most grievous flaws.
One scene illustrates this perfectly. Joe, living with Jerome and caring for their young son and agonizingly unhappy in such a conventional life, is desperate to cure herself of her genital insensitivity and experience sexual pleasure again. Jerome, for whom sex with the unresponsive Joe has become little more than masturbation with a half-interested audience, has encouraged her to find partners outside their relationship. From their apartment window she spies a group of African men standing on the corner, and sends an intermediary to invite one of the men up for sex. Because the man, she presumes, cannot speak English and they will not be able to communicate, the encounter might have a degree of excitement that will snap her our of her numbness. The man agrees to visit her at a hotel, but shows up with his brother.
The men are very matter-of-fact and immediately undress Joe and themselves. Then they begin to argue. There are no subtitles, so we don’t know what exactly what they’re saying, but they seem to disagree about how best to approach the task. They barely look at Joe. The arrange her this way and that, move her like a mannequin, argue and disagree, their erections bobbing in and out of the frame. Joe’s voiceover tells us that, because during double penetration the two men will potentially be able to feel each other’s penises through a thin membrane, the exact positioning is crucial. While the men argue heatedly, Joe, unnoticed and disappointed, quietly gathers her things, dresses, and leaves.
There’s a lot going on in this scene: the men’s discomfort with their own sexuality; the contradiction of two homophobic men sharing so intimate a sexual encounter; the contrast of the men’s rampant sexual readiness and Joe’s marked indifference to the proceedings. And then, most interestingly, there’s the racial component: The men show so little regard for Joe—barely more than awareness of her presence, in fact—that it’s hard not to think of a slave auction, first with the white lady on high picking out her strapping, black sexual partner, then with the races reversed, and Joe’s body being treated like so much horseflesh.
But what does the scene mean? Nothing. The humor of the scene works perfectly, but you can almost feel von Trier giggling to himself at the discomfort he’s sure he’s delivering, the racial and sexual minefield he’s sure he’s leading us into. Von Trier simply saw a chance to pack a scene with layers of provocative baggage and couldn’t resist, but it’s dead end. It’s von Trier at his worst.
Ultimately, Vol. II does succeed in making Joe a more compelling figure than she seemed in Vol. I. The best (and maybe only interesting) way to read the film is as a metaphor for von Trier himself. At one point, Joe and her friends form a club for compulsive sexual stalkers of men, a club into which love is not allowed, and it’s hard not to see the parallels to von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, with its wholesale rejection of artificiality (or their definition of artificiality, at least). At its most successful, the film succeeds in making Joe stand for the very idealism von Trier has always made central to his persona. And when she finally rejects the mores of wider society and forges her own path, we’re invited to compare Joe to von Trier himself. Nymphomaniac ultimately amounts to von Trier’s permission to himself to be who he is. It’s not only a dubious artistic pursuit, it’s one I can only wish he’d spent half as much time on.