One thing is certain about the movies of Lars von Trier, they can’t be ignored. And so when NYMPHOMANIAC released earlier this year, many topics were broached. Some wrote about whether the film was sexy or not. For others, the most interesting topic was the way the film played with gender politics and feminist theory. Others yet wrote about its aesthetic form, and how that related to previous von Trier works. Some delved into influences, many of which–One Thousand and One Nights, The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron–are name-checked in the movie itself. One topic that wasn’t discussed much, though, was the film’s genre. Considering the fact that von Trier is oft-labeled a miserablist, it’s one that’s worth emphasizing. NYMPHOMANIAC is a comedy.
NYMPHOMANIAC comes in two parts–VOL. 1, and VOL. 2. They’ll be playing back-to-back at the Brattle, and truly demand to be seen in that manner. They both take place during one night, and watch Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) tell the oft-humorous, oft-tragic story of her sexual life to kindly professor Seligman (Stellan Skaarsgard.) She tells her tales, and he decodes them academically, relating the stories to everything from fly-fishing to the history of mountain climbing. Their relationship is artist/critic, patient/therapist, and senses/intellect all rolled into one, and its progression carries the film from the first moment of VOL. 1 to the last of VOL. 2. There are two volumes, but this is essentially one movie. A damn funny one.
Of course, there are moments of tragedy in the picture. They’re affecting, in some cases perhaps even devastating (and Stacy Martin’s portrayal of Joe’s younger self in the first five of the film’s eight chapters demands as much credit for that as Gainsbourgh.) Yet von Trier’s direction, most often, is interested in the mania that takes over when we fixate on getting off. NYMPHOMANIAC is a “sex comedy” in the truest sense: it’s dedicated to portraying and cataloguing the many specifics of the act (hence the chapters, and the shout-out to multi-volume literature,) right down to an extended, jovially edited montage of flaccid cocks. Joe calls her studies with men “morphological,” but the film is something like anthropology.
Von Trier finds humor in his studies, in the visuals and cuts themselves, working with cinematographer Manuel Claro and a fleet of editors. This is a compendium of vaginal, phallic, and otherwise loaded imagery as much as it is of the wide-ranging possibilities of sexual behavior. When one character “flips [Joe] over like a sack of potatoes,” von Trier literally cuts to a sack of potatoes being flipped over for a moment. One frame, early in the movie, positions a pre-teen Joe between suggestively-tied ropes (they have two circular knots on top, with long string–covered with black tape–hanging down in the middle.) When she describes the silent duck, a particularly striking sex act she learned during her days spent in a sadist’s dungeon, von Trier can’t help but cut to stock footage of actual quacking ducks. The shock-auteur doesn’t miss a chance to aim for a symbolic, low-brow laugh.
Those images are just the texture layered on top of Joe’s eight erotic chapters, though; all of which detail, to some extent, her failure to find a balance between her insatiable appetite for sex and her desire for romantic love. That’s where the almost-Bunuelian comedic conceits of the script (which has no specified time or place, setting-wise) kick in. In one sequence, we see her systematically lying about her sexual experience to a litany of men, von Trier’s cuts cataloguing their various responses. In another, Joe begins to have too many suitors ringing up her phone constantly, so she devises an elaborate dice game that pre-determines how she’ll respond to each of them. “As I was having sex with 7 or 8 men per night, scheduling was very tricky,” she deadpans.
The third chapter, “Mrs. H,” revels in such absurdity. Mr. H has left his wife to come live with Joe, who has no interest in him. When Mrs. H shows up to the house, she has her kids with her. She (Uma Thurman) proceeds to crash through the house, yelling and screaming and showing her children “the whoring bed” that broke up their family. Because of Joe’s tight suitor-scheduling, another sex-date shows up too, while the entire H family is still there. Joe, the remnants of a family she broke, and her latest conquest all sit down to the table for dinner. Like a lot of moments that come later in Joe’s life (other chapters bring her to marriage, the mob, motherhood,) it’s simultaneously harrowing and hilarious. Call it black humor, call it absurdism, Bunuelian, over-the-top, whatever you want–but this sequence, and much of NYMPHOMANIAC, is played for laughs.
Von Trier’s film recognizes that we all couple up and fuck because we need to, not because romantic love compels us to. Joe isn’t any different, she’s just on the far end of that spectrum. Sex is nothing but function and pleasure to her, and all attempts to connect it to intellectualized romantic emotions end in disaster. Von Trier looks at her, and by extension at us, and he sees total folly–he sees Joe bored while a boy pounds away at her, he sees her reaching the strongest orgasm of her life via an inanimate object, he sees great hurt and suffering caused for a few moments of indescribable bliss. He looks at our collected sexual compulsions, and sees a comedy. One that laughs at nothing less than the carnal demands of the human condition.