Rather than waste your time worrying over the relationship between Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and pornography, I will pass along a lesson from Harry Atkins, who taught phys ed at my high school in South Chicago many years ago.
It was Mr. Atkins who happened to be monitoring the study hall on the day I first brought my new Modern Library Ulysses to school. As any man of his responsibilities and training would have done, he took one look at the cover and immediately seized the book, along with the likely opportunity to chastise a wiseass kid and a chance to find a few minutes’ diversion. In silence, Mr. Atkins began thumbing through “Proteus,” “Wandering Rocks,” “Oxen of the Sun,” searching for the good bits. In no time at all the book was back in my hands, delivered with a scowl that told me I was an even worse putz than he’d figured, and the damned thing was literature.
The role of putz in Nymphomaniac is played by Stellan Skarsgard, appearing in the guise of a monastic bachelor who spies a bruised and battered woman lying unconscious in a dark alley and brings her up to his flat for tea, cake and a nice, long chat. Literature—chapter titles included—is provided by the woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who agrees, in exchange for a night’s safe haven, to tell her tale, explaining how she came to be left for dead and why she believes the punishment was merited. There are plenty of sexual encounters in her stories, and lots of bare body parts in the skits that von Trier stages around them, with effects that are by turns whimsical, hilarious, wrenching, aggravating and appalling. But pornographic? If Mr. Atkins went looking for that, he would first have to wade through a quasi-Joycean profusion of literary history, notes on Christian and pagan iconography, tips on fly fishing, speculations about the Bolshevik attitude toward specialized cake forks, botanical lore, elaborations on the Fibonacci numbers and instructions for composing three-part counterpoint. Nor could Mr. Atkins be mocked if he gave up before getting to the scenes of people in the grip of a convincing erotic pleasure. For all the humping and slurping in Nymphomaniac, there aren’t many of those. The principal stimulation you get from the movie comes less from sex than from the mind games played between Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, and between you and von Trier.
The arena for these contests is the sparsely furnished, dimly lit bedroom to which Skarsgard (or Seligman, as the character is called) has brought Gainsbourg (or Joe). The décor is scarcely more elaborate than the white lines on a soundstage floor that represented the houses in von Trier’s Dogville. This is the neutral space—almost aggressively neutral, you might think—in which Seligman gently insists on conducting a kind of psychoanalysis of the supine, bedded-down Joe, seeking to cure her of her ostensible self-hatred (“I’m just a bad human being”) by encouraging her to free-associate about her past.
Or, to look at it another way, the bedroom is the near-void into which Joe projects her fantasies, or lies, using as prompts the few ill-assorted objects that Seligman has admitted into his cell. The viewer understands pretty quickly that Nymphomaniac is on one level von Trier’s version of The Usual Suspects with Joe in the Kevin Spacey role, improvising a story that may serve her own obscure ends while keeping Seligman harmlessly occupied. For viewers who are overly credulous, von Trier even supplies moments when Seligman questions the likelihood of this or that incident in Joe’s yarn, leading her to retort that it’s up to him (and presumably the movie audience) to decide whether believing her stories makes them more interesting.
When the night and its recitations come to an end, will Joe turn out to be Keyser Soze, Scheherazade or just a doozy of a case study? Von Trier sets you up to wonder; and while you’re at it, you might also entertain a few doubts about Seligman. Is he really as mild and high-minded as he seems—he can’t even mention being a Jew without immediately warding off any suspicion that he might be a Zionist—or could he perhaps have slightly selfish motives for carrying home an attractive but temporarily helpless woman and laying her in his bed? There is certainly an element of seduction in the way he entices Joe to talk, just as there’s an element of doubt about the core premise of her account, which is that she’s a nymphomaniac. Maybe the word—introduced by Seligman, not Joe—is just another prompt for her improvisations. Maybe she makes sex central to her stories because she guesses that’s what he’s looking for from a female character—a desire that he supposedly shares with a great many moviegoers.
I have now been led to the verge of saying that Nymphomaniac is designed to make you question what you want from a movie. You bet it does; that’s why it’s being marketed as Nymphomaniac and not Ma nuit chez Seligman. But if I were to try to explain or justify the movie by saying that it “foregrounds the male gaze” or some such, I would lose the mind game, having been maneuvered by von Trier into an evasion much like the silly, pedantic lectures into which Seligman digresses every time Joe gets to the good bits. To avoid the trap, and own up to having watched several hours of something titled Nymphomaniac, I have to take his challenge personally and tell you what I discovered that I wanted from this experience and what I did not.