Lars von Trier’s new film “Nymphomaniac” deals with curiosity, addiction and physicality. Charlotte Gainsbourg tells the story of her life – the story of a bad person, a sexual highwaywoman, a redemption.
At first everything is black, like the universe before the beginning of all things or like at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001” before the eye of the film opens. Then it is only dark, and sleet falls on a backyard that must have been copied from an old Carl Theodor Dreyer film into the present. On the asphalt lies, unconscious, beaten blue and bleeding, a delicate but no longer young woman. She is “Joe”, the heroine in Lars von Trier’s new work. Reluctantly she lets herself be picked up by an older, friendly man.
“I am a bad person,” she explains to this “Seligman” (Stellan Skarsgård) when she receives a cup of tea with milk, so that he has no illusions and perhaps also because she needs this reassurance. Thus begins a double story: the account of her life, which is largely identical with her becoming and passing away as a sexual being, and the story of redemption through telling and being told – which in the end does not end as the viewer’s romantic sense would have liked.
Two and a half years ago, Lars von Trier showed “Melancholia” at the Cannes Film Festival, a film about the end of the world, which he thought he had shot in “German Romantic style”. And as much as his international success was connected with this competition – beginning with his first film, “The Element of Crime” from 1984, with which he competed for the Golden Palm for the first time – and as much as Lars von Trier needed this festival for his public recognition and this festival perhaps also needed him, the arrangements went wrong at that time: A British journalist had asked how he felt about the National Socialist aesthetic.
Up and away a wild mood carried the Danish director, out of defiance, embarrassment and scorn, but above all in the spontaneous certainty that one can only answer a very foolish question with an even crueller stupidity: “Okay, I’m a Nazi,” he replied. Then the premiere party was cancelled, and the following day he found himself expelled from the event, indefinitely. Never again, he later promised, would he say a word in public.
“We call this sex addiction”
“Nymphomaniac”, the new film, will therefore not have its premiere at a festival, and certainly not at an international one. For the time being, at least, it will not be presented at all, but will reach the audience in parts and in stages. Since Christmas Day, the Grand Teatret, a small, hundred-year-old art cinema in downtown Copenhagen, has been showing a four-hour version of the film in two parts. The opening credits say that it is a shortened and censored version that was made in agreement with Lars von Trier, but not under his supervision.
In two parts, starting a few weeks apart, the film will soon be shown in most European countries – at the Berlin Film Festival in February, the full version of part one, authorized by the director, will be shown. It differs from the shorter version not least in that there are said to be more genitals to be seen. This is, so much can be said after four and a half hours, an ambivalent promise.
In the second part of the film, there is a scene in which “Joe”, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, as boyish as she is gay, steps into the middle of a therapy group meeting in an empty theater. “I’m a nymphomaniac,” she says and looks around with a smile, as if she not only wants to test the effect of her provocation, but as if she is throwing herself, as it were, after her own assertion (Lars von Trier sometimes looks the same way). “We call this sex addiction,” says the group’s leader, who is inspired by educational zeal. And because this exchange of words takes place on a stage, and because this “we” is possibly taking place on just as fictitious a ground as the narrator’s “I”, there are now three objects up for negotiation: sex, addiction, and curiosity.
The coitus, the happiness of physical desire and blissful defenselessness, is the outwardly turned object of this film, especially in advertising: the Danish campaign for the film, which first showed the faces of the actors, then those of the film critics of the major newspapers at the moment of a (fictitious) orgasm, was about this very private and yet very general feeling. The second, more difficult object is the transformation of this fulfilled moment into methodically pursued promises of meaning or an addiction – which means that this moment is always already beyond satisfaction and should always accomplish more than can ever be satisfied at all, for reasons of vanity, self-assurance, the search for meaning, or what similar cultural events can be even more. Finally, the third object is the transfer of the search for meaning in foreign bodies into a public object, which can be called “nymphomania” or “pornography” or something else, but which always ensures that people come in large numbers and want to watch.