Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nymph as Innocent, Nymph as Sinner

What's better, love or an orgasm? Joe, the protagonist of Lars Von Trier's 2014 film Nymphomaniac, calls love orgasms with jealousy added. As she tells her story to a very well-read, self described asexual atheist, this perhaps most cerebral of Lars Von Trier films is captivating and explores what it means to fulfil oneself and the value of pleasure and altruism.

One of the things I love most about Lars Von Trier movies, and which isn't talked about often in reviews of his work, is his practise of creating thematically evocative fantasy versions of the modern world. Plenty of people pointed out consciously made scientific inaccuracies in Melancholia while fewer point out that the puritanical little society depicted in Breaking the Waves was entirely fabricated by the director or that the legal practices and execution procedures depicted in Dancer In the Dark were anachronistic or entirely fabricated. Similarly, Von Trier creates an apparently mafia controlled debt collection practice for Nymphomaniac that enlists Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) based on the skills she becomes known for in the world of S&M.

When she meets Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), she's lying half-conscious, bloodied in the alley as a Rammstein song about nymphomania plays on the soundtrack. When she's recovering in Seligman's bed--she insists he not call ambulance or police--she tells him casually that she's a bad person. He agrees to hear her tale and decide whether or not she is truly wicked. The movie sets up dichotomies between the two that evolve and intermix throughout the film--he, the purely intellectual, she, the almost entirely physical. He the ascetic, she the hedonistic; he the innocent, she the Satanic. In fact, he explicitly remarks on Satanic symbolism that comes up throughout her tale, like a musical chord played on a piano during meetings of a secret nymphomaniac club she joins as a teenager.

The teenage Joe is played by Stacy Martin, her father is played by Christian Slater. He's a doctor and doesn't seem as perturbed as her frigid mother (Connie Wilson) by her youthful sexual experimentation. He's in most things secular but in a scene Joe recalls multiple times throughout the film, he demonstrates a love of trees that seems to have a spiritual quality. He takes Joe walking in the park in winter, describing the bare trees as the "souls of the trees". He has a particular fondness for ash trees and mentions their significance in Norse mythology.

The fondness for Wagner that Von Trier exhibited in Melancholia manifests in a scene that uses the descent into Nibelheim scene from Das Rheingold as a metaphor for Joe's discovery that she's lost the ability to orgasm. But this is just one part of a diverse and very nice soundtrack that includes the aforementioned Rammstein, Talking Heads, and Shostakovich's "Waltz Number 2", remarkable in that for many people it would instantly recall another high profile movie about sex, Eyes Wide Shut. Joe is of course almost the exact opposite of the protagonist of Eyes Wide Shut, unbound by social conceits regarding sexuality and not regarding sex as an outsider as Tom Cruise's character seemed to--and as Seligman seems to.

The first half of the film (which is divided into two films, volume 1 and 2) is a little more light hearted, following young Joe as she and her friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), prowl a train in a competition to see how many men each can fuck. Seligman jovially compares the story to fly fishing and brings up some amusing analogies. Joe, meanwhile, seems surprised that the story of her selfish behaviour doesn't push him towards judging her as bad indeed but he has an intellectual acceptance of free sex. It's later in the film the issue becomes somewhat more complicated as Joe's pursuit of ever more elusive physical pleasure takes dominance over her responsibilities to other people. Throughout the film, Seligman and Joe draw fascinating analogies to music, literature, and religion, and as rich as these are, they also serve in augmenting a provoking subversion of the dichotomy between the two that calls into question all judgements, religious or secular.

Twitter Sonnet #698

Wet cotton buttons have a yen for cane.
The elegant snowmen maintained silence.
Sweet Falstaff's antlers sparked in the late lane.
No luck linked Santa's boot to compliance.
Reindeer rein in rainstorm reigns for the snow.
Fur lined boot waffles hold breakfast dom feet.
Eustace! You bought Yuletide yew trees to go.
The sleigh's unseen note was on Santa's seat.
Christ straddles crates of the angry eggnog.
The mistletoe frames clouds and Von Trier.
Coniferous con plants dupe the hedgehog.
Pines decorated are even tree-er.
Frosting firmament sogs the golden star.
Christmas centipedes are driving your car.

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