“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I”
A Morality Tale
Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) is a young is young man who finds an unconscious wounded woman in an alley and he takes home. She tells me him that her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and that she is a nymphomaniac. She further shares some of her sexual experiences with hundreds of men; she has been sexually active since she was twelve-years-old. Seligman’s hobbies are mild in comparison– fly fishing, reading about Fibonacci numbers or listening to organ music. Being a good Samaritan, Seligman tries to help Joe .
We see Joe’s first sex rampage, on a night train, and it is quite visual bravado. Joe and her friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), bet who can score more men and a series of tense, suggestive glances and gestures builds up to a catalogue of arousal that is heightened by the compression of time. The visuals are spliced with text on the screen and we get an evocation of the girls’ play and wantonness. We not only see Joe’s actions but also her thoughts which are aimed at asserting her sexual prowess and debonair air. Afterwards we are privy to her single-mindedness when “Joe and her sexual liberation conspirators recite, “mea vulva, mea maxima vulva,” which a comical moment and she’s us Joe’s confusion. We can only understand that Joe is puzzled by her original, youthful naïveté, and wishes to move away from it as far as possible but Joe’s retelling ultimately lacks self-irony, and her rebellious liberation becomes a kind of punishment for her. She falls in love and love becomes the ultimate threat, and part one of von Trier’s opus ends with Joe and her sweetheart, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), in sex that is tormented”.
The darkness of the alley where Joe is found represents the darkness of the human psyche. When we get to the bedroom, we become aware of the lack of communication as Joe suffers from the guilt she feels and goes on in her attempt to prove that she and the life she has led is reprehensible. Seligman joins her adding metaphors for her behavior. His imagination begins to take over and then comes through as dirty especially when he imagines her dressed as young schoolgirl masturbating. Is Seligman the voice of reason and compassion and if so, can he be trusted? Von Trier shows Joe’s acting out as a desperate need to feel alive. We only see her a few times when she is not having sex and at those times she is listless and we tend top feel sympathetic toward her. We see desire here as ambiguous and complicated. Not only is this the story of the adventures and misfortunes of a female sex addict, it is also a look at art, history, religion, music, and literature.
I recently read a fascinating article that likens “Nymphomaniac” to an apology for Judaism. Most of the film is a series of flashbacks but even before they begin, Seligman tells us a little about himself. He says his names means “happy man.” He is Jewish and his family is anti-Zionist and he explains that this is not the same as being anti-Semitic. He loves rugelach, and eats them with a cake fork. Joe, replies that eating rugelach with a cake fork is unmanly. From this a conversation begins which continues until the end of the film. It well could be that the conversation is between Judaism and Christianity. Von Trier “casts the quintessentially non-Semitic Skarsgård as the Jew and Gainsbourg as the Christian”.
“Audaciously, perversely, blasphemously, Joe is Christ inverted. At 12, she experiences an out-of-body involuntary orgasm that mirrors the transfiguration of Jesus. Instead of being accompanied, as was Jesus, by Moses and Elijah, Joe sees visions of Messalina—the sexually insatiable wife of the Roman emperor Claudius—and the great whore of Babylon. That erogenous revelation sets the tone—Joe’s entire life becomes a quest for more perfect forms of transcendence. “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people,” she says very early on in the movie, “is that I’ve always demanded more of the sunset, more spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That is perhaps my only sin.””
“Seligman is her polar opposite. Everything he learned in life, he learned from the books that line his small apartment”. He relates to Joe’s sordid stories by finding parallels everywhere, commenting that the frequency of her copulations forms a Fibonnaci sequence, say, or that the way potential lovers arrange themselves in a given space corresponds with the patterns displayed by salmon fish swimming upstream”. Their conversation becomes both hilarious and outrageous, so much so that even the most indulgent viewer is likely to throw up her hands when Seligman brings gematria into the coital mix—but it is also astonishingly poignant”. Seligman offers Joe his interpretation with layers of meaning that turn her tortured endeavors from a futile pursuit of salvation to a fathomable, even sensible, way of being here in this world.
Seligman is rebukes St. Paul. “Judaism, the stern disciple had famously judged, was the religion of law while Christianity was the religion of love”. However the tagline of the film tells us to forget about love and then shows through the convoluted conversation between the two strangers and we are all put into Seligman’s position. We too listen to Joe’s life and we also understand the danger of having a sexual appetite like hers. Joe prefers carnal bliss and she seeks her soul.
That the only path to her soul is “between her legs” and we see von Trier arguing here that “our thirst for transcendence, our desire to rise above the brutishness of the human condition, can only lead to disaster”. Like both faith and guilt, love is wild to be contained and this is true of any human emotion worth experiencing—we can’t ever forsake them, and yet we must never attempt them in “too great a dose”. Seligman is the alternative to Christ and a “perfect embodiment of Jewish eschatology”. He. like the sages of old, believes that there aren’t any fundamental differences between our own time and the days of the Messiah to come and that all attempts at redemption must focus not on some desperate thrust heavenward but on a series of small and incremental earthly steps”. If you believe this, interpretation becomes your weapon used to achieve this. “If you are your own savior, and if every one of your acts facilitates the saving, you are likely to read a lot into everything”. The Talmud is the perfect example of this.
And von Trier relates to this. Remember that three years ago, he was booed off the stage at the Cannes Film Festival for making comments that some understood to be sympathetic to Nazism. “I really wanted to be a Jew,” he said then, in response to a question about using Wagner in the Melancholia soundtrack, “and then I found out that I was really a Nazi. Which also gave me some pleasure. I understand Hitler. I think I understand the man; he’s not what you would call a good guy. But I understand much about him. And I sympathize with him a little bit.”