Personal Health

'Nymphomaniac': How a Four Hour Arty Porn Flick Can Make a Profound Statement About Sex Addiction

Lars von Trier's sex addiction marathon supplies no easy answers. That's a good thing.

Actress Stacy Martin arrives on the red carpet for a screening of the film Nymphomaniac.
Photo Credit: AFP

The following first appeared on Substance.com

At the start of Nymphomaniac, a midlife bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-proclaimed sex addict, prostrate and battered in a gutter. He takes her home, plies her with tea and rugelach, and offers to wash her clothes, which she refuses. How did she come to such dire straits, he wonders. “You wouldn’t understand,” she protests. “I wouldn’t know where to start.” But Gainsbourg doesn’t even sit up in bed as she begins an affectless recitation while her head lolls: “I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old…”

And she’s right: There’s not much to understand in her story. Sex happens repeatedly in shocking, profligate ways, and that’s pretty much it. But the director, Lars von Trier, isn’t telling a simple story; the interesting bits are not in the sex but in the philosophical conversation between Joe and Seligman—and also in what’s not present: clear motivation, sentimentality or a recognizable love story. Ironically, Joe and Seligman’s relationship may be the most tender on view.

Controversy—and publicity—have swirled around Nymphomaniac since its first advance trailer was released over a year ago. As with all von Trier’s films—such as Melancholia, Dogville and The Idiots—this two-part, 240-minute marathon stuffed with breasts, full-frontal male nudity (the credits list numerous “sex doubles”), anal sex and kink is provocative, to say the least. (Volume I is in theaters now; the second will be released selectively on April 18. Both are currently available on iTunes.) Critics disagree over whether Nymphomaniac is a work of art or a work of pornography, but they generally agree that it is a workout.

“A study of sex addiction that contains as much analysis as action, Nymphomanic is sometimes perplexing, frequently preposterous but never less than provocative,” The Guardians Xan Brooks wrote. “It makes most other movies look like middling insipid little flirts.”

“This is a work of pornography, in which fantasy, and the contemplation of it, is the only thing that’s real,” The New Yorkers David Denby wrote. “Like most porn, even art porn, it falls apart at the end.…But the director has at last created a genuine scandal—a provocation worth talking about.”

Richard Brody did his New Yorker colleague one better. “There is a scintilla of metaphysical mystery in Nymphomaniac, albeit as a sort of sick joke,” he wrote, peevishly adding that “the introduction of the theme of sadomasochism with the hammer clangs of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ has ruined one of my favorite pieces of music.”

Nymphomaniac is anything but just another movie about sex addiction. It intentionally frustrates the conventional expectations that come with that genre: wanton lust, shame, destruction; the loss of control and the struggle to regain it. Even the harshest of these films—such as 2011′s Shame, in which a handsome, successful, young New Yorker falls into the void of endless sex—remain solidly grounded in psychological realism. In Nymphomaniac, Joe exhibits all the symptoms of sex addiction, often in an almost fantastic fashion. But their meaning is as elusive and suggestive as her condition itself. You’ll find no addiction-speak about “triggers” or “trauma” in von Trier’s film, although if you’re determined to identify something Freudian in Joe’s childhood, there is a not-very-warm mother.

Joe exhibits all the symptoms of sex addiction, often in an almost fantastic fashion. But their meaning is as elusive and suggestive as her condition itself. You’ll find no addiction-speak about “triggers” or “trauma” in von Trier’s film.

Von Trier neither accepts nor denies the standard explanations for sex addiction. Each chapter illustrates one theory or another—biological instinct, early trauma, self-soothing, attention-seeking, female rebellion, masochism, even love—without committing to any. At first Joe condemns herself, saying that her condition is an insatiable appetite for pleasure. “I behaved reprehensibly,” she says. “I was an addict out of lust, not out of need.” Yet there is pride, too—as if to say that she has chosen nymphomania rather than becoming trapped by it. Likewise, in the first chapter, when Joe loses her virginity at 15 to a brute (Shia LeBeouf), it is she who chooses him rather than the reverse.

Losing her virginity causes her neither shame nor celebration. It does not awaken a hitherto slumbering lust: The lust, as she said, had been there since age two. Neither, though, does Joe’s desire seem life-affirming or pleasurable. Orgasm and other sexual sensation are often absent for the experience. Nymphomaniac is simultaneously pornographic and boring.

At one point Joe professes that her promiscuity is a revolutionary act. “We were committed to combat the love-fixated society….For every hundred crimes committed in the name of love, only one is committed in the name of sex,” she says, explaining the charter text of her after-school-type girls’ club. Does she really believe in this statement, or is it just a weak rationalization?

Somehow von Trier has narrated prurience without revealing desire. When Joe’s de-virginator mysteriously reappears years later, she develops feelings for him not because he was her first, but because he saves her, prosaically, from a stuck office elevator. After some years, they develop a relationship, but the more his love for her grows, the less she can feel. And true to sex-addict type, she takes flight.

Although she has regrets, Joe evinces shame at only one point—and it has nothing to do with her sexual activity. Occasionally she denies that she is a sex addict at all. Yet she tells her story confessionally—or therapeutically?—to Seligman and it is their ascetic, undefinable relationship that ultimately may help or heal her.

Midway through the movie, Joe asks Seligman if he’d get more from her vignettes if he’d just sit back and yield to faith. That’s one of the questions von Trier asks of the viewer, too: How can it be that a movie like Nymphomaniac is in fact not about sex? Wouldn’t it be better if we just sat back and took it all at face value? It’s tempting, but the answer is no: If you’re interested in von Trier’s latest film for the sex, skip it. It’s not erotic. But if you want to see a film that provokes—and has serious fun with the conventional sex-addict narrative—Nymphomaniac is one of the best you’ll find.

Johannah King-Slutzky is a freelance journalist living in New York City.