Lars Von Trier has made a career out of stunts: explicit material, crass juxtapositions between the high and low, casting of unexpected actors, and outlandish statements. This makes Von Trier at once a nuisance in contemporary cinema—someone who thinks he is telling the Real Truth when it’s just a satirized form of regular ideology—and perhaps a necessity. It’d be great if the American vision of contemporary Euro-Art cinema was, say, more Alain Guiaurdie or Thomas Arslan, but instead we have Von Trier and Herr Haneke, mostly because the way they directly invoke and challenge the expectations of Hollywood cinema. In a way, they urge us to balance our diet of Hollywood cinema with their “cultural vegetables.” Von Trier’s cinema wouldn’t exist without someone to gasp at it.
This is all to say, the easy reading of Nymphomaniac, his five and a half hour opus, would be as a self-critical examination of the director’s own career. One could even place each of the chapter’s into the various sections of his filmography: plot points from Breaking The Waves, a direct quotation of a scene and the music from Antichrist; is the scene of Joe and the African men is a play on Manderlay? Even Joe’s discussion of Hitler and the way Seligman misinterprets her point of evokes Von Trier’s indiscretion at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
A better way to put Nymphomaniac into context is less autobiographical than read it as a statement of artistic principles, or a dialectic on why Von Trier makes Von Trier movies. Trailers, advertisements, early reports focused exclusively on “how far” would Von Trier go—and even the basic log line feels like a parody of one of his films. What wasn’t focused on was the fact that the entire film centers around the discussions between Joe and Seligman, the artist and the critic. Like all Von Trier films, this debate occurs between directly opposite philosophies: Joe’s nihilistic spirituality wants to prove she has sinned, while Seligman rationalizing, contextualizing, and normalizing each part of her behavior.
Seligman’s digressions into fly-fishing, Fibonacci, polyphony music are at once Bad Interpretation and completely reasonable compared to Joe’s insistence that her acts were truly masochistic. Shot in a weary room in which the walls seem to be dying, the sequences are at once decidedly slow in terms of the two actors’ soft spoken voices, but the shot length and amount of editing is surprisingly speedy for the Tarkovsky-influenced auteur. It’s as if word and image clash: Dreyer-esque stillness against Dostoevskian theoretical debate. East Church Vs West, pleasure vs. pain, male vs. female, virgin vs. whore: Von Trier chooses the biggest targets possible to smash together.
It’s not the clash that’s interesting (such as the film’s early and tiresome Rammstein cue) but the aftermath of these. Seligman thinks he can contain Joe’s story and deny the own artist’s interpretation, while Joe continually re-asserts, “you’re not even listening.” Seligman’s perfected virginity in ways provides the perfect Straw Man for Von Trier’s Joe, and not in a bad way—he can’t get off on the material, and thus Joe’s critic does not even respond to the basic level in a way Von Trier sees necessary. Like many of his “New Extremism” contemporaries (Noe, Dumont, Haneke), part of responding to a Von Trier film is the fact that one must either feel pleasure or pain, and it is in responding to that bodily function that one finds meaning. This is what makes Nymphomaniac most compelling—what happens when we remove the body from cinema?
The most essential scene in this, ironically, is the sequence only available in the complete director’s cut: a lengthy abortion sequence, described quite thoroughly by Peter Debruge. It must have been an obvious cut for the international censors, because while most of the sex is, well, sex, this is truly the most squeamish and offensive the film truly gets. It also thus gets to I think what the core of Nymphomaniac is really about: the importance of provocation as a narrative device. Joe’s ideas of why she wants an abortion are so morally objectionable, and the procedure so brutal to watch (bravo to whatever digital or prosthetic work was done here), that even Seligman has a hard time putting them into his theory. “On principle, I believe that taboos are damaging for human beings,” Joe demands.
What you can say about Joe’s abortion rhetoric, her demand to use the word “negro” to explain the aforementioned ménage à trois, or her sympathy for pedophiles, is not that one must agree with it, but it is Von Trier laying his cards plainly with an explanation. Do we need one? There’s another version of Nymphomaniac without Joe and Seligman’s debates, a film which simply tracks Joe from her erotic becoming at age 2 all the way through thousands of men before being pissed on by her adoptive daughter-cum-sexual-replacement. And what would be the meaning of that story? Certainly not the interpretation given by Seligman near the end as a proto-feminist tale, nor Joe’s interpretation as a moral failing that leads to an attempt to purify herself and reach some idealistic goal of transcendence. Von Trier knows that such lofty goals, read into his films or general, are silly affairs, and so Nymphomaniac ends with the follies of both man and woman, Joe and Seligman recant their ideas. It’s the final pun on an elongated joke–not the eros of Scheherazade and the king, nor the jovial return of The Decameron, but a final trolling in case you were also “not listening carefully.” Nymphomaniac must end with a bang. Von Trier isn’t here to reconcile his points of view with a more rational form of society, only to state their necessity to exist and clash. If Von Trier didn’t exist, cinema would have to invent him.