Nymphomaniac opens to a pitch-dark screen: The visuals are completely absent and only the ambient sound keeps the frame alive. Slowly, the sounds of raindrops falling and a train halting make their presence felt. And for the next minute or so—although it feels a lot longer than that—the frame continues to remain dark. This unique set up is reminiscent of the age-old story telling technique, where someone just narrates a story to you: only the sound matters. As long as you can hear the words you can make your own visuals. And this small scene—if one can call it that—becomes a metaphor for the movie’s form. We are being told a story here, quite literally. Few scenes later, we see a heavily battered Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounting her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). The story’s visuals soon take over and a new film unfolds but time and again, Von Trier interrupts that film and goes back to the scene between Joe and Seligman, where they dissect the story, talk about the people in it, and what became of them.
For a film centered on a woman, who’s enamored with the idea of exploring her body for carnal pleasures, it’s interesting to note how the first sexual encounter in the film plays out: it’s completely devoid of any sensuality, joy, or even hopeful nervousness. Here, the lovemaking is perfunctory, as if Joe and her partner, Jordan (Shia LaBeouf), want to get done with this just so they can tick a box on their checklist. Von Trier takes us through this scene like a mathematics professor, describing in detail—through Joe’s voiceover—the specifics of the scene, reducing its essence to two simple numbers superimposed on the screen by a “+” sign. Moreover, Von Trier doesn’t quickly cut to a new scene, instead the scene lingers even after the act is over, but even now the two participants are merely going through the motions. What do you really make of their automaton-like behavior? Is Von Trier trying to say something here? The girl is only 15 years old. How does it really work: should you understand yourself first and then try to understand your body, and consequently, its needs? Or is the body a separate entity in itself — complete with its own set of conundrums and quandaries?
The universe of Nymphomaniac is singularly fascinating and it’s so because it plays with the conventional definitions of love and lust. Here, lust is spoken about freely and openly, while the word ‘love’ is mentioned in whispers, often in apologetic, shameful tones. In Joe’s world, the gratifications of lust are immediate; they are real. They happen to you. While love is not only esoteric but also nebulous, and it’s a mishap that happens to others, you can only hope that it doesn’t creep up to you. What’s equally fascinating here is not only the study of the life of a nymphomaniac — Joe — but also what happens when her life intersects with the lives of others. In most cases, you could have only fleetingly imagined their several what-ifs. Here, Von Trier shows us those lives — an enraged housewife, three children too young to understand what’s going on. And no question is less profound or less important than the other, whether it has to do with love or lust.
Also when you have adopted a lifestyle where your life collides with the life of almost dozen others every night, you can’t recognize them individually. Their lives have coalesced into a giant blob of nothingness. You realize, in due course of time, that your life doesn’t revolve around them; it’s only centered on you. That every night a series of intimate encounters have made you increasingly frigid. At the end of it all, you are spent, still ravenous, and even more alone. Intimacy has befriended loneliness. And it’s in this marriage of extremes that Von Trier skillfully manages to place the first half (Vol I.) of Nymphomaniac.
But having said that, it’s also important to consider how Von Trier makes us aware of these questions and concerns. The questions, frustrations and disappointments are all present in front of us, beautifully telling their own story, but why must Von Trier hold our hands and guide us through them? And, it’s not that Von Trier is spoon-feeding us or spelling it all out; it’s a form that he adopts here, but am not sure that style suits a film like this. Some asides such as beautiful, little discussions on Pythagoras theorem, Fibonacci numbers segue into the narrative seamlessly, other bits such as parallels between catching a fish and hooking up with a stranger are a little drawn out and come across as too literal, even forced. Even more confounding is the way Joe explains the metaphors in her story and Von Trier cuts to a different scene, which shows us those metaphors. It becomes a little too easy. We don’t want Von Trier to make things easy for us. Let us grapple with these questions; just like Joe, allow us to find our own answers.
However, what Von Trier does get right is what he’s most known for: his propensity to not hold back. Whether his characters are experiencing sexual ecstasy, plain indifference, or even unbridled anger, he just doesn’t cut quickly and move on to the next scene. Instead, he gives room to his characters to vent, to let them be, to find an outlet or an expression they are most comfortable with. For instance, most filmmakers would just imply that a patient has defecated on the hospital bed, but not Von Trier. He’s not content with mere hints; he walks you through the scene. There’s no mollycoddling here; it seems as if Von Trier is telling us — look at this filth these people have to put up with, they have to live with it and so will you. Or be it the scene where Joe talks about the different kinds of male genitals. And, even there, Von Trier doesn’t look the other way. As Joe is describing the different male genitals she’s seen, their visuals keep appearing in front of us in form of montage. And in a Von Trier film, these scenes seldom play out to shock you. They are there. The question is: How are you going to react to them?
Any story that goes on for a considerable period of time doesn’t only reveal the secrets of the teller but also says something about the listener. Which parts of the story excite him? Which parts is he indifferent to? The relationship between the teller and the listener materializes through these small exchanges. Even in Nymphomaniac (especially in Vol. II), we similarly get to know Seligman’s secret. You can see this conversation has a narrative: in the way Joe perceived Seligman initially and in the way she sees him now. And as if acknowledging their relationship, Seligman says later that sometimes just changing the point of view can make a lot of difference. Which is exactly what has happened here. We are more aware of Seligman now. Now the relationship between Seligman and Joe also exists beyond the confines of Joe’s story.
Von Trier delineates Joe’s predicaments methodically — peeling every layer, analyzing the one completely before moving onto the other. So if Vol. I of the film explored a nymphomaniac’s initiation into a new world, and subsequently her loneliness, and helplessness; Vol. II of the film is more concerned with understanding her desperation, restlessness, and finally, her addiction. Also as the different threads of the movie slowly begin to unspool, we see Joe and her problems in a new light: She’s no longer her younger, carefree self, who can drift anywhere she wants to; she’s become a mother. She’s wedded to her responsibilities now. Now the two people in her life (her husband and child) are not just mere acquaintances; they exist. And Joe must confront and answer the questions her new identity throws at her. What do you really do when what’s expected of you slowly begins to corrode the real you? Do you try to forget yourself, or worse, be ashamed of it? Or, do you try to rebel in your own way — continue to live the life you want and hope that things somehow magically fall in place?
Joe opts for the former and tries her best to ‘reform’ herself. But as she soon comes to realize, hers is an intricate problem because at the center of it lies her body. She could have tried to break the shackles, but then it would have ideally meant discarding her own body. It’s a demand she can neither understand nor ready to fulfill. She finally gives in and meanders into worlds she had only heard about. And in this new world, humiliation and shame are very closely tied to liberation, and consequently relief.
But perhaps Von Trier’s most commendable achievement in Nymphomaniac is talking about the sexual deviants, and hence, social outcasts. What do normal people with abnormal desires do? How do you come to terms with your helplessness when you crave something forbidden? Questions like these float abound in the latter half of Vol. II. Von Trier manages to achieve something rare in the movie — he takes us through these cramped alleys, makes us enter a dungeon, and opens that cellar, which contains a multitude of dark, depressing questions. Questions that stare back at us and tell their own stories. Questions that corner us but don’t necessarily demand a answer, rather all they ask from us is some involvement, and most importantly, a little understanding.
And in the final scene of the film, the frame is dark again. This time we can hear an agonized protest, and a gunshot. Soon, the background music shatters the deathly silence. The frame continues to remain pitch-dark. We have come a full circle. The story is over.