“Does that Pardon Everything?” A Review of Nymph( )maniac: Vol. I and II

by Matthew Cabe


(Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Lars von Trier is not a filmmaker with whom I’ve much experience. Outside of Nymph( )maniac: Vol. I & 2, 2011’s Melancholia is all I’ve seen of his work. I didn’t like that film, but after watching both installments of Nymph( )maniac, it seems I have a lot of reconsidering to do.

I wasn’t ready for von Trier in 2011. The polarizing Danish filmmaker who has also directed Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), and Antichrist (2009) is infamous for his defiance toward standard filmmaking. For von Trier, film grammar matters only insofar as how effectively he can defy or break its rules to achieve freedom as an artist and storyteller. He employs the aesthetics of French New Wave filmmakers like Jean-Luc Goddard, but, in his own words, von Trier argues that the FNW’s techniques were used more so for the sake of style than for artistry.

My point here is I didn’t know any of this when I watched Melancholia, and the only reason I’m aware now now is thanks to Mark Cousins’s 15-part documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which includes an interview with von Trier. Before the interview, Cousins synopsizes von Trier’s approach: “The camera must be taken off the tripod. The shape of the screen must not be wide. No sets should be built. Real locations should be used. No props should be brought to those locations. No music should be used. No lighting can be added. No flashbacks. And the director must not take credit.”

With regard to Nymph( )maniac, what’s interesting about von Trier’s own rules is that he breaks them. The film recounts the prodigious sexual history of its protagonist, Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Joe’s story is delivered entirely in flashbacks. She describes the events to an elderly man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who has brought her into his home and cared for her after a brutal attack left her unconscious and bloody in a dank alley. Both volumes were shot in widescreen. The camera is fairly static. Sets and and props were used. And there’s plenty of music and lighting. As a result, Nymph( )maniac feels like a “real” movie. By that I mean not experimental in the vein of his earlier film, Dogville, of which I’ve seen only snippets, but resembles what a dream might look like when you’re brain forgets to include the sky or any landscape beyond the immediate setting.

The major rule von Trier breaks though, especially in Nymph( )maniac’s first volume, has origins that are more novelistic than filmic. As Joe delves into her past, the film takes on the feel of a first-person novel. Seligman sits in as the reader of her story, and reacts in a way most do while reading: He interprets her story based on his own life experiences. In other words, he tells the viewer how Joe’s story should be understood. She shows us that many of her actions are deplorable. He tells us they’re not. Enlightened, unprejudiced minds want to agree with him, but it’s clear that some of her actions, coupled with her obvious need, make it difficult to see this as anything but addiction. A scene in the second volume involving an abandoned child and a balcony proves particularly unsettling. Still, Seligman persists that she is not a bad person.  

At one point Joe recalls a time as a young teenager when she and her friend played a game to see who could have sex with the most men on a train. Seligman then uses a fishing analogy to explain how the girls lured the men into the train’s bathroom. Seligman’s ceaseless telling amid Joe’s showing works to focus the viewer in on one interpretation of Joe’s sex life, Seligman’s. And any reader knows how maddening this can be since it leaves no room for other interpretations, specifically our own. But von Trier understands the annoyance, and it isn’t until the end of volume II that his reasons for utilizing it become apparent.

Without giving away too much, Joe experiences an awakening near the end of the film. She’s been moving toward this all along. Her storytelling has been her catharsis and mode of transcendence. Despite his interpretations and seeming understanding of Joe’s sex life, Seligman makes a decision that suggests he either dismisses this change in her entirely, or that he never actually understood her or her story in the first place. In short, everything about Seligman— his interpretations, his understanding, his sympathy, and his motives—turns out to be false.

The effect on the viewer—this viewer, at least—parallels that of a major plot twist in, say, an M. Night Shyamalan film. You believe things to be one way, but it turns out you were wrong all along. You’ve been duped. Your beliefs and your ego have been challenged. It’s all very disconcerting, humbling.

This “twist” also forces you to evaluate the reasons why you so easily went along with Seligman and brings up tricky questions concerning increasing social tolerance. von Trier (of all people) asks, “How far is too far?” because accepting Joe’s actions, like Seligman does, becomes not about liberal views of sex or morality, but about a complete dismissal of responsibility and the denial of the possibilities for a fuller life once addiction is confronted.

Seligman’s unreliability also demands an examination not only of blind acceptance, but of the masculine gaze and its dominance over and interpretation of femininity. This is, above all, the story of a man telling a woman that the way she lives her life is not wrong. “You were a human being demanding your right. And more than that you were a woman demanding her right.” Seligman explains, and it’s hard not to devour his sentiment. Joe, however, questions him, asking, “Does that pardon everything?” Seligman pushes the issue further and by the end of a little feminist rant, it’s clear that his view of her femininity trumps hers because his is masculine and approving. And from that approval, Seligman feels it his human right to do what he does next.

By subverting the idea of male tolerance, von Trier manages  to argue that men are incapable of understanding women as anything other than sexual objects no matter how open-minded they appear. That some women are more sexually open than others only widens that masculine lens. What’s more unsettling is, based on Seligman’s actions, men seem to have no control over this incapability. And how could they? Where there exists no awareness, there exists no need for change. Joe, however, was always aware.