The Rumpus Discussion of Nymphomaniac

After their respective reviews of Nymphomaniac Volume I & Volume II, Arielle Bernstein and Larry Fahey discussed the film in its entirety (moderated by Rumpus Film Editor Chloe Schildhause).

Arielle Bernstein: So, it seems like we both have very different takes on Nymphomaniac.

Larry Fahey: Quite.

Chloe Schildhause: Larry, did you know from Vol. I that you disliked the film? Had you made up your mind on that before seeing Vol. II?

And Arielle, I’m curious about your take on Vol. II, too—whether it changed your opinion on the movie as a whole.

Fahey: Well, I wouldn’t say I’d made up my mind. I try to leave things open. I’ve seen many films that were saved, for lack of a better word, in the last 15 minutes. I think every second counts. I’d hoped he might take the whole thing in an unexpected direction in Volume II. In some ways, he did, but it was all pretty solidly grounded in Volume I—thematically, emotionally—and I found Volume I to be a letdown, to put it mildly.

Bernstein: I read the first one as camp, as I said in my review. The second volume didn’t quite fulfill what I think the first set out to do…and at first, I didn’t like the ending.

Fahey: It’s always the last minute with LVT [director Lars Von Trier]. He’s the preeminent fuck-hole of our generation. It’s never about the audience, it’s never about the characters. It’s always about LVT. He’s a black hole in the middle of his cinematic universe, and sooner or later he’s going to suck everything right into himself.

Bernstein: See, I really love LVT.

Fahey: To be honest, I do too.

Schildhause: Where would you both have preferred the film to go in Vol. II?

Fahey: Where would I have preferred it go? Honestly, I don’t know. I would have preferred it go somewhere only LVT could take it. Somewhere I can’t imagine. One of my favorite recent films is Under the Skin, and one of the things that’s so great about it is that you don’t know where it’s going. I mean, plot wise, maybe you can guess. But the things it makes us feel, the ideas it explores—these are constant surprises.

Bernstein: I liked the last moment, but I think it took too long to get there. I agree that he was trying to put every sexual taboo in the film and these things don’t strike me as so unusual or taboo, especially for a von Trier audience. I think in the end the film is about a woman who did everything on her own terms. She’d fuck every guy in the universe, but not one if it didn’t suit her.

Fahey: I’ll say this: I like Volume I better after reading Arielle’s review.

Bernstein: Thanks Larry. I liked Vol. II less after reading your review. I think you pointed out a lot of the flaws. I think what Nymphomaniac lacked for me was a lot of what I loved about Breaking the Waves, which is still my favorite von Trier film. Just a simple story arc where the characters felt real… I feel like that film actually pushed more boundaries than Nymphomaniac did, in the end, even though it was less “shocking.”

Fahey: That’s a good point. Nymphomaniac felt like a New Year’s Eve party to me—here’s the biggest, the best, the craziest time of the whole year! It’s hard to deliver on that promise. And it’s hard to deliver on the promise of the shock of LVT doing a movie about a nymphomaniac. In his best movies, these things happen by stealth.

Schildhause: Do you think it just gets to a point where it’s a “what’s next” factor? And that at that point, shock value becomes contrived?

Bernstein: I thought that was deliberate. The movie mimics how porn just keeps upping the ante and eventually it just isn’t arousing anymore. It’s just overwhelming

Fahey: If that’s true, Arielle, I can only call it an artistic miscalculation. By a lot. Because if part of what he’s doing is exploring the excesses of porn, I mean, where do you draw the line between what you’re mocking and what you’re making? Make a dull movie with too much sex and you wind up with a dull movie with too much sex.

Bernstein: I mean, what worked for me in Breaking the Waves was also the acting, and I felt like that was really lacking here. It became about ideas rather than an emotional experience. I don’t see a von Trier film to get a dull movie.

Fahey: To me, a lot of the acting backs up your point, Arielle, about this being intentionally excessive. I think you see that in Uma Thurman’s performance. At times I felt like she was the only one who got how funny this was. In a horrifying way.

Schildhause: Well, Shia [Labeouf], I just felt sort of embarrassed for. I feel sad saying that. I loved his work on Even Stevens.

Fahey: I’ll never again experience the embarrassment I had for Christian Slater’s accent.

Schildhause: This brings up another good question. This movie is a comedy, right?

Fahey: Good question. I mean, most LVT movies are, on some level.

Schildhause: You both saw this in theaters. Were people around you laughing?

Bernstein: I thought it was a black comedy that was unsure of its own point by the end of Vol. II. I mean, I genuinely laughed. I watched it at home, so I laughed by myself.

Schildhause: I went to see both volumes in theaters, and both times I was the only woman in the theatre. So weird.

Bernstein: Interesting—why do you think that is? You know, I have to say, I think I would have felt weird seeing it in a theater by myself.

Schildhause: Perhaps it had to do with the time of day. I saw both around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe women prefer watching Nymphomaniac at night. This theory makes no sense.

Fahey: Frankly, I wanted my gender to play more of a role. I wanted LVT to spend more time on what my expectations were, as a male viewer used, to some extent, to seeing women in these positions and situations.

Bernstein: How do you think LVT could have done that?

Fahey: Well, again, I’m not sure. I think LVT is a great enough artist that I can put myself in his hands and say, “Okay, show me something new.” The sex was so numbing. It conformed in a lot of ways to basic porn architecture. I wanted him to do something that would make me think more about that. I wanted him to sabotage the system. He throws bombs, but not always in the right directions.

Bernstein: That makes sense to me. I wonder if LVT just doesn’t do “numb” well.

Schildhause: Larry, did you see this alone in theaters? Did you feel any sort of weirdness?

Fahey: I watched it at home, actually. Not for any (conscious) reason other than that was the easiest way to see it. What’s amazing to me, as a man, is this: I’m fairly well programmed to respond to certain images. Many of them are in this movie. Yet this movie did nothing for me. I mean, nothing whatsoever.

Schildhause: What images in particular?

Bernstein: It’s definitely not an erotic film. Probably LVT’s most acerbic film that I’ve seen.

Fahey: Most of them, really. The guy getting the blowjob on the train. The aborted threesome. Various explicit shots of various penetrations. Stuff that exists in the sweet spot of male fantasy, or other stuff, like the bondage/S&M stuff, that exists just outside (how far depends on the person) the mainstream of sexual titillation. This is stuff that, on the level of pure naughtiness, might work for me if I saw it in, say, a standard porn.

Arielle—most acerbic? A bold statement. They’re all so acerbic.

Bernstein: The sex was very mechanical, but that’s obviously deliberate too. I mean, sex is compared to fly fishing and math. The closest we get to human touch is the final scene of Vol. I with Jerome. And she can’t feel anything.

Fahey: God, I hope, by the way, the LVT is deeply embarrassed for writing the line, “Fill all my holes!”

Bernstein: I think it’s interesting that our nymphomaniac doesn’t watch porn.

Fahey: Good point. Well, when would she, though? She had a full schedule.

Bernstein: I don’t know honestly—she did have a full schedule

Fahey: And her life was basically a porn.

Schildhause: Yeah, I was going to say, I can’t imagine how watching porn would satisfy her desires.

Fahey: Probably just make them worse.

Bernstein: I wouldn’t want to hang out with Joe. I think she is boring.

Fahey: Boring as shit. Anyone with that single a focus is boring.

Schildhause: She needs more hobbies. What do you think of the protégé character introduced in Vol. II?

Bernstein: Hated her! Total plot device. If I were giving advice on this film, as if it were a short story, I would say, “Listen LVT, the heart of this story is Joe, her father, and Jerome.”

Fahey: One thing that was interesting to me: the protégé made Joe seem put together by comparison. I felt like it added a little purpose and seriousness to Joe’s character, who’d to that point seemed to be drifting.

Schildhause: True. And I mean, it’s nice that Joe was able to find a career that worked for her. Perhaps too late. Would you hang out with anybody from this movie?

Fahey: The fat guy who came and gave Joe baths. He was very sweet.

Schildhause: Good choice. I would hang out with Jamie Bell’s character. Outside of his cave. I bet he is cool, maybe has some good stories.

Arielle Bernstein's work has been published or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Nervous Breakdown, St. Petersburg Review and PANK Magazine, among other publications. She is a regular columnist at IndieWire Press Play and teaches writing at American University. Larry Fahey is a writer living in Boston with his wife and two kids. Johnny Depp gives him hives. If you’re so inclined, follow him on Twitter. More from this author →