I heard a lot about Lars Von Trier’s two part dirty movie experiment for a while now. I was super intrigued because I kept hearing that it was blurring the line between X rated and R rated. How did he get this movie funded, made and distributed so widely? But what I forgot to think about was what the rest of the movie was going to be about, so when I finally got around to giving these two a watch I was really surprised by the plot/storyline.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I
A beat up Charlotte Gainsbourg (love) meets a timid man played by Stellan Skarsgard (double love). He brings her to his house to help her out and she starts recounting her whole life story, but it’s a mostly sexual life story for him as she explains why she considers herself a nymphomaniac.
Here was my first big sigh. I’m already not liking that the film is establishing the violent factor by showing her badly beat up. My second big sigh came from our leading lady’s first sexual experience with a badly accented Shia LaBeouf. It’s violent, lets just leave it at that. This apparently kickstarts her addiction. Third big sigh, perpetuating the myth that only “damaged” women have/enjoy a lot of sex and/or sexual partners. She tells her story to this stranger trying to prove she’s a bad person, and instead he seems to be understanding her on a highly educated level by paralleling her choices and experiences to science, history or literature.
Though I couldn’t really keep my eyes off this movie (I barely paused or checked my email while watching it), I had a lot of problems with it still. The story is presented in a way that seems okay because our main gal is an active participant and seemingly in control, but there are details like a very long scene where she’s reprimanded for dating a married man, or a sequence where sex scenes are juxtaposed with images of a deer getting killed that cancel out any idea of her choices being okay. Even the things that seem really autonomous at first felt voyeuristic after a while. Who is this movie made for? On to Volume II….
Nymphomaniac: Volume II
This one starts out with a bit of hope. Joe, our main gal, works out a way to be married and happy and still satisfy her heightened sex drive. Okay, great! But alas it doesn’t last long as her husband is furious with jealousy. So the trend starts to reveal itself: Men just can’t handle her. She even finds men she thinks are “dangerous” (this is all kinds of racist, p.s.) and even they can’t handle her. So she turns to a dominatrix who for some reason doesn’t take payment (also, apparently men can’t be dominatrixes; they need personal motivation to want to do it). Her punishment for putting her needs first is losing access to her kid and her husband leaves her. Oh great, she loses again. There are several more plot points involving betrayal, abuse, rape and all reinforcing this glaring point that men are the enemy. Finally culminating in a long speech by her rescuer. He explains to her that her actions wouldn’t have been perceived as so bad if she were a man. Then the point is really driven home by the last scene (that I won’t give away) reminding us all never to get comfortable.
Some might see this story as a lecture on the darkest parts of patriarchy, others might see it as a story of unfairness, but I see perpetuation of a huge problem. If you make a movie about how women are criticized unjustly for things that men do without consequence, where your female lead is continuously punished, you’re not proving a point, you’re punishing another woman (albeit a fictional one) for the very same reasons. So instead of having a story about justice you’re left with another story about abused women.
Let me be clear, I like Lars von Trier and I think his movies are long and weird and glorious. These two films were pretty intriguing and while I was watching them I kind of really liked them, but afterwards all I could remember were the very odd scenes, the violence, the uncomfortable parts and I grew to really dislike them.