If part of nymphomania is a compulsive need for sex without joy or attachment, there has got to be a word for Lars Von Trier’s ability to produce high quality art entirely devoid of anything resembling humanity. Let’s call it high-functioning nihilophilia, the urge to emphatically and articulately express one’s love of absolutely nothing.
This is what we get with Nymph()maniac, possibly the closest we will ever come to a Von Trier teen sex comedy. We follow the life of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is found bleeding in the street by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). As Joe is nursed back to health, she describes what brought her to her current state: a lifetime of sex addiction in which she hurt men with her wanton detachment. Seligman listens and attempts to console her with increasingly contrived metaphors.
It’s a fine enough concept, and there are occasional sequences in which Von Trier’s skill as an artist make for memorable set pieces and flights of fancy (see: the “organ” sequence, and Uma Thurman’s brief scene-stealing moment). But everything in between is about as stilted, robotic, and insulting as a guy in a bar reading come-ons directly from a sleazy “pickup artist” guide. Every metaphor that Von Trier sets up for Joe’s view of her own sex life is first explained in excruciating detail, from polyphony to cake forks. Sometimes, it’s as though two separate movies were filmed and spliced together at random; as Joe describes when she first discovered her “cunt” (a word Von Trier no doubt chose specifically for its negative, self-shaming power), Seligman can’t shut up about the minutiae of fly fishing.
Make no mistake, Von Trier does not make movies about topics he likes or understands. If he’s filming something, odds are he has the utmost contempt for it, which is why most of his films center around female characters. Nymph()maniac does not shy away from graphic detail, often showing full penetration and unsimulated oral sex, but not out of bravery or a lack of shame. No, Von Trier’s creepy, grimy fascination with sex is closer to Fred Phelps’s lurid and hateful obsession with butts and blood.
Initially made as a single four-hour film, Nymph()maniac is being released in two parts, leading Vol. I to end with a hammy “Next time on Nymph()maniac” montage. It’s supposed to build anticipation that it’ll finally get to the point … but it’s the point of all this that you should be most afraid of.
[NYMPH()MANIAC / NOT RATED / FRI 3.21]