Nymphomaniac: A Left-Handed Film

[written by Cole Clark]

A Stone in Your Shoe

How can a filmmaker make anguish engaging? It takes a certain amount of confidence, and material that’s provocative enough to ruffle some feathers. Michael Haneke and David Lynch, for example, craft stirring films from tortuous content. Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return are prime examples of structurally difficult work: the former, a two hour, plainly shot character study of a masochist, and the later, an 18-hour treatise that expands one of the most iconic TV series of the 90s into an Inland Empire-esque deconstruction. Content matters immensely in these projects, as does the individual craft, but rarely do Haneke or Lynch project “confidence” in their films. Assurance or patience, perhaps, but these works rarely make an outward display of their creator’s intentions or thought processes. Haneke is capable of audience-winking satire, as is Lynch with his distorted portraits of 1950s suburbia and Hollywood, but here we’re discussing works that take risks in their arrangement, gambling audience dropoff with a single edit or languorous sequence. This is where Lars von Trier enters, an overtly confident artist with a mind just as tortured as Haneke or Lynch’s. 

His films, such as Antichrist or Melancholia, test the boundaries of sensitive content, like satanic imagery and depression, but he is also behind genre experiments The Kingdom and Dancer in the Dark, both of which challenge audiences with their structures. The former, a medical drama under the guise of a Twin Peaks-style mystery, is excruciatingly predictable and melodramatic; the latter, infamous for it’s star’s comments on her treatment by von Trier on the set, meshes musical theater with true-life horror as Björk’s character is subjected to some of the worst cruelties in contemporary film. Von Trier has a name for his style of filmmaking: two, actually, but one at a time: “A film should be like a stone in your shoe.” Antichrist shocked the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 with sequences of genital self-mutilation, and his 2003 film, Dogville, reigns as one of the most damning societal critiques of the century, with no physical sets or traditional production design to speak of. In von Trier’s career, the stone has come to mean many different things: character study, alt-musical, inventive production choices, but there are only a few examples of these stones coming together. His most recent film at this time, The House That Jack Built, comes close, but it’s that film’s predecessor that bundles von Trier’s many provocations into an arduous, transformative collage of character study and challenge to structural filmmaking. Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier’s 5 ½ hour sexual epic, embodies the second name he has used to describe his films. In fact, it coined it: a left-handed film. 

Film Takes an Interest in Itself

In Nymphomaniac, there are obvious changes to the filmmaking status-quo, such as two separate volumes that combine to form a four hour edited film, and a five and a half hour director’s cut; but the subtle changes are where von Trier tests new theories, expanding upon his Dogme 95 manifesto, a film movement he co-created with Thomas Vinterberg in 1995. Dogme rules stipulate that films must be shot on location, use no music other than what is in frame, and leave the director uncredited, along with seven other, equally restrictive rules referred to as the “Vow of Chastity.” While he only ever made one Dogme film, The Idiots, von Trier’s films bear a lasting mark from the influential, artist-controlled philosophy. Nymphomaniac stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe, a self-described nymphomaniac (a misogynistic term for a female sex addict) who begins the film beaten nearly to death in an alley. Stellan Skarsgård plays Seligman, an aging loner who discovers her and brings her to his apartment to recover. A young version of Joe is played by Stacy Martin, who’s performance comprises most of volume one, leaving Gainsbourg as a narrator relaying her past to a curious and insightful Seligman. The two form an idyllic bond, Joe delivering long stretches of her story while Seligman interrupts to add some philosophy, history, or personal experience. Von Trier labels this method of storytelling, “Digressionism,” but it’s really as simple as a framed narrative accentuated by intermittent tangents, or digressions. The opportunity to hear a story immediately reflected from a symbolic audience member creates an entrancing feeling, as if in the The Princess Bride, Fred Savage interrupted Peter Falk periodically with his own knowledge of sword fighting or scaling vast cliffs. There’s investment not just from the audience, but from the film in itself.

Seligman’s obsession with fly fishing is an early high point, as Joe recounts the story of her and a friend’s competition for a bag of “chocolate sweeties,” by seeing who can have sex with the most men on a train. Seligman explains that, in fly fishing terms, Joe was testing the waters, seeing which fish would bite and which would avoid the bait, and as Joe’s game ranges into more complex methods of seduction, so do Seligman’s parallels. It’s a thrilling dynamic, and perhaps the clearest example of digressionism. One of the most memorable digressions comes after Joe’s dogmatic statement to Seligman at the start of her story: “I’m just a bad human being.” Seligman is eager to paint her life in shades of gray, and one of his first attempts is a classic movie one-liner: “There are two kinds of people in the world,” he says. It’s odd to imagine painting someone’s humanity in gray with a binary example, but he goes on, “People who cut the nails of the right hand first, and people who cut the nails of the left hand first.” Cutting the nails of the right hand is hardest, because the nail clippers are held with the left hand, which many people are not dominant with. It’s a choice that determines whether someone is disciplined enough to stave off the easier option until the tougher one is completed: thus, the left-handed choice. Joe quickly answers that she cuts the nails of the left hand first, using her dominant hand and seeking ease above all, but she makes a caveat Seligman fails to recognize: after the left hand has been cut, the right hand is the only one left. There are no other options, and therefore, the pain is somewhat justified as a necessary step, not just an uncomfortable choice. As her story unfolds over the next hours, Seligman’s statement feels less like a way of organizing humanity, and more like a paradox. 

If the easy choice is sex, Joe’s journey to get it is anything but, and not even what most people would call “pleasurable.” She endures pain and all manner of consequences for her lifestyle, but remains relatively unshaken in her desire for pleasure. Not only is this a fairer portrait of addiction than most films give, it’s also where Nymphomaniac plants the seed of its boldest theme: by turning sex into one aspect of a woman’s want for pleasure, the act is (over time) brought to the level of every day arguments, fights between spouses, and questions of whether or not to have children. In America, especially, sex is defined by it’s consequences: what must be done to prepare, what must be done after, and what must be done to stop people from doing it. In stark opposition, Joe’s need for sex is expressly stated as selfish, divorced from emotion and empathy. Whether or not anyone agrees with von Trier’s perspective on de-coupling sex from emotion, it’s worth exploring the merits of this way of thinking, if only to follow the made-up conversation between an addict and her chronic interruptor. “The only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset,” Joe says, echoing Seligman’s own categorical example, but what Joe demands isn’t empathy or love. It’s liberation from the expectation that sex must lead to love, that women are good for sex until they can function in a family and shed their desires, or else reserve them for their husbands. Joe’s opinions on sentimentality and love change throughout the film, but the effect of her words and the filmmaking remains. The veil of intimacy is shattered, leaving only pleasure and the cold, insatiable need for satisfaction. If this sounds frightening, imagine how many male-led films have followed this same emotionless philosophy, with a focus on violence or military service rather than sex. Von Trier has taken on demanding themes before, but to cut to the heart of decency and gender-based morality is like driving an ice pick into a kicking horse. The viewer is practically guaranteed to be punished for their expectations, especially when the film equates a sex addict’s liberation from societal limitations to a liberation from empathy.


Other cast members include Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, and Uma Thurman, none of which had been von Trier regulars. Bell and Thurman play fascinating one-off characters (we’ll get to LaBeouf soon), especially Thurman, who appears in volume one for roughly ten minutes. She bursts into Joe’s apartment as the soon-to-be ex-wife of one of the men Joe is seeing, two young children in tow, and begins a deceptively tempered speech. Seeing as Joe has been the primary focus of the story to this point, either in the present with Seligman or in flashbacks like this one, a break from her limited, admittedly trying point of view is refreshing; yet Thurman’s words aren’t the typical, “I caught you red-handed,” spiel. She feigns understanding for her husband’s desires, and takes the opportunity to introduce her children to Joe, with the ridiculous goal of preventing their inevitable trauma as adults. “Remember this room, kids,” she sighs, asking Joe if they may be allowed to see the “whoring bed.” She’s a wrecking ball, heaping guilt onto Joe as well as her husband, which isn’t a perspective we’ve seen much thus far. Joe’s pattern in storytelling rests on convincing Seligman that she is a bad person, worthy of the beating she received and perhaps worthless entirely. This story, entitled “Mrs. H,” seems a worthy example of her inherent evil, but as always Seligman finds it no great task to see Joe in three dimensions. All the same, an uninterrupted sequence of marital collapse and bitter sarcasm reveals the interpersonal consequences of Joe’s lifestyle, accomplished through a bitter and painful performance from Thurman. For a director who routinely punishes the hell out of their female actors, it’s unique to see one of them respond so honestly to betrayal. 

Just as the scene starts lagging though, Thurman is out the door, howling into Joe’s apartment at those who have ruined her and her sons’ lives. The scene is wrapped up so succinctly it could be a long-form trailer for the film, but it stands as one of eight titled chapters, each named after a different event in Joe’s story, or an idea Seligman provides to her during their conversation. The second chapter, “Jerôme,” focuses on LaBeouf’s recurring character, a coincidental sexual partner of Joe’s who’s repeated appearances in her story baffle Seligman. First and foremost, however, Jerôme is a means to an end for Joe. One of the first experiences she shares with Seligman is the losing of her virginity, which she describes as essential to her sexually liberated future. She chooses Jerôme based on the way he handles his motorcycle, with strong fingers and palms that seem made for molding. The second time they cross paths, Joe finds a secretary job at a printing house where Jerôme is filling in as manager for his uncle. It’s in this time period, wherein Jerôme takes advantage of Joe’s subordinate position, that LaBeouf truly debuts. As much a provocateur as von Trier, the actor’s casting in the film appears designed for disruption. LaBeouf reportedly got the job after sending von Trier videos of he and his then-girlfriend having sex, something he would be doing a lot of in the film, but his role as Jerôme isn’t nearly as sensational as that audition might suggest. After a spell as the quintessential abusing boss, he becomes muted, allowing Joe to take the reins of their relationship when the two reconnect years later. Joe likes the way he handles her, and that’s about all we get from Jerôme past his introduction as a hardass, which turns out to be a rouse (he eats croissants with a cake fork!). What’s left is a pushover, a key factor in Joe’s discovery of love later on, but still a far cry from the raw, unfeeling man we’re introduced to, and know as an audience. It’s hard to say whether casting an actor against type can be considered a left-handed decision, given the established Hollywood arc of “comedic actor gone-dramatic,” and vice versa, but Jerôme is hardly consequential past the chapter that bears his name, and the finale where he shows another, more violent use for his touch. His most involved scene is his first, wherein he takes young Joe’s virginity and we’re first introduced to her liking for his hands. Past this, he’s a character of little consequence, a fate most would succumb to between the towering symbolic forces of Joe and Seligman. 


Digressionism, by Nymphomaniac’s understanding, is a relationship. Seligman and Joe have a conversation, Joe relaying her past while Seligman listens attentively. As a symbol for the audience and philosophical thinking, he appears to be von Trier’s ideal audience member: educated, worldly, inventive, and obsessed. He questions Joe, but more importantly, he contributes to her story with his own interests. As seen on posters for the film, fly fishing is Seligman’s favored subject, at least for the first hour of volume one. While Joe relays the train story, he equates her exploits to fly fishing. We see Joe peering into train cars and walking down aisles, then cut back to Joe and Seligman in his terminally-beige apartment so that he can speak up and present his insight in visual form. Gainsbourg’s Joe is much less excitable than Martin’s, yet she is content to accept digressions from Seligman as often as they come. In the first volume, they are in rapid succession. First a fly fishing story, then a history lesson on “tri-tones,” a satanic musical style Joe inadvertently accessed during her time with a group of like-minded, love-shirking teenagers. A popular criticism of Nymphomaniac comes in the idea that Seligman’s digressions are fascinating, but that they lose appeal at random intervals, often for hours at a time. While I agree in part (there’s no denying Seligman’s relative silence for the last half of volume one), the evolution of digressionism is more worthy of critique than it’s absence.

The first hour of volume one takes the viewer back and forth between Seligman’s apartment and Joe’s story, utilizing graphics and overlays to visually communicate Seligman’s ideas, one being an instance where he notices that numbers Joe mentions are Fibonacci numbers, and as he explains Fibonacci’s sequence to Joe, the number pattern appears on the screen. In von Trier’s next film, The House That Jack Built, a similar technique is used to demonstrate Jack’s need to kill, by depicting his walk from lamppost to lamppost in stylized chalk art. Some of Seligman’s digressions are essential, but some aren’t, and after the sleepy “Delirium,” perhaps the least noteworthy chapter in the film, the story needs a pick-me-up. This is where the concept of digressionism blooms into its fullest potential, in a chapter titled “The Little Organ School.” Joe details a stable period in her life, now in her mid-twenties, as she regularly has sex with three unique men. One is reliable and servant-like, another is adventurous and forceful, and the third is Jerôme. Instead of verbally explaining this, however, Joe takes a cue from Seligman and explains the men’s functions as like a piece of organ music. The subservient man is the bass melody, played with the organist’s feet; the second man is the left-handed melody, and Jerôme is the right handed melody, the trickiest and most essential to the piece. It’s what you hear first, the defining sound of the organ, even though the other two are just as crucial to the song. Throughout her explanation, footage of a man playing the bass, left, and right-handed melodies appears, much like a documentary. The melodies are diced into three sections on the screen, and as Joe assigns one to each man, footage of Joe having sex with them replaces each section, until a three-image collage is assembled that captures an idea Joe has been reluctant to accept: that the piece only works with the right-handed melody, Jerôme, who introduces love into Joe’s unfeeling perception of sexuality.

Until now, Joe has been adamantly against affection: “Love is something I never asked for.” Yet, her admission that this comforting sexual balance is only possible with the presence of love elevates her digression into something greater. Unlike the simple parallels Seligman draws, “The Little Organ School” visualizes Joe’s impossible lifestyle, effectively explaining someone’s need for constant stimulation, while also discovering the benefits of love. Without this example, Joe’s turn towards emotion would be false, but as a metaphor for music and the complimentary natures of melody, it is understandable, even beautiful. Von Trier never tops this digression at the end of volume one, and is well aware of it. Seligman begins volume two with a brief tangent on mountain climbing, which Joe calls “one of your weakest digressions yet.” Her story remains focused on a series of sexual and spiritual encounters, but things get a little more plot-focused in volume two. There’s still plenty to love, but it would be wrong to say the film doesn’t peak here, with an evolution on digressionism that comes shockingly close to explaining the fluid intersection of a person’s sexual and emotional desires.

Uma Thurman in Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)
Marketing & the Public

On the public side, Nymphomaniac couldn’t have come at a more culturally opportune time. Teased with eight “appetizers,” each a snippet of a chapter in the film, and advertised with posters showing the stars making their best “o” faces, marketing for Nymphomaniac was go-for-broke. Von Trier’s previous film, 2011’s Melancholia, resulted in the infamous “persona non grata” declaration from the Cannes Film Festival, barring von Trier from attendance for his comments on sympathizing with Hitler. One might expect a director to tone things down for their next feature, but Nymphomaniac used something akin to Hollywood blockbuster marketing to advertise it’s ambition. At the time of release in 2014, film culture was awash in unconventional love stories: Her had just won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, and Before Midnight capped off a decades-in-the-making love story, contesting the beloved first two films for best in the trilogy. Not to mention Only Lovers Left Alive and Gone Girl, both of which stand the test of time. Point is, there was no want for films dealing with relationships in a new, 21st century shape. Nymphomaniac appears to fit right into that culture, which, at risk of contradicting myself, is not normal for von Trier. He shocked the audience at Cannes with Antichrist, a film about the inherent evil of women and men, and nearly every von Trier premiere has been met with mass walkouts, faintings, or even vomitings; his English-language films carry big names, but typically find their lives in critical circles. Nymphomaniac is no different, boasting it’s stars and not holding any punches when it comes to content, but the advertising is uncharacteristically commercial. One poster features nine principle actors in the film (three of which have less than 15 minutes of screentime) in all their orgasmic glory, boasting a happiness we’ll never see in the film. A passerby who sees the poster is told to think, “Willem Dafoe, Stellan Skarsgård, and Uma Thurman in a sex comedy,” when two of those big-name actors have less than 30 minutes (out of a total 325) of screentime combined. Also, this is not Sex Tape

Nymphomaniac is full of odd choices. Look closely and you’ll spot a shot from The Kingdom, as well as a direct reference to the Prologue of Antichrist, in which a young boy falls out a snowy window, Handel’s “Lascia Ch’io Pianga Prologue” playing in the background. Cheekiness is one thing, but fitting a popular demand is another. One line of text best exemplifies the nature of the film’s marketing: a poster featuring only a fly fishing hook, adorned with a bright red feather, with the caption “Forget About Love” underneath. I’m not sure who would expect a tender, loving film about sex from von Trier, but this statement breaks that wall early on, while also following an established marketing style. Three simple words, a tagline grandiose enough to spark curiosity while not giving away the behemoth that’s to come. Melancholia’s “It Will Change Everything” elicits a similar feeling, as does Dogville’s “A Quiet Little Town Not Far From Here,” perhaps the most duplicitous of the bunch, but unlike those films, Nymphomaniac is about something universally discussed. When examining America’s systemic classism in Dogville, or the harsh realities of depression in Melancholia, there is an uphill battle against stigma, an uncomfortability with the topics of the manipulative middle class and clinical depression. The act of sex, on the other hand, is popular, and while certainly not normalized in the United States, von Trier never said that’s who the film was for. For one, every American actor adopts a murky, vaguely Western European accent, LaBeouf and Slater being the most obvious. The location of Seligman’s apartment is visually reminiscent of WWII-era Germany, cramped alleyways and rising smoke around every taupe brick wall. It’s never clear when and where Joe’s story takes place, only that most people in it speak English. In a 2011 interview at the Cannes festival, von Trier suggested that Nymphomaniac would be “a very French movie…I have planned to make a hard-core version…But, I have to, otherwise I can’t finance it, a soft-core version, also.” Like any commercial filmmaker, he wants his films to be seen, but Nymphomaniac went beyond traditional forms, advertising von Trier’s longest, most narratively experimental work as a star-filled romp, while also responding to a cultural conversation around 21st century love. 

The Left-Handed Choice

Dozens of choices are made in Nymphomaniac that defy or contradict von Trier’s earlier status quo. His films remain a riveting experience, at once highly specific to the filmmaker and palatable to an audience willing to sit through them. The film ends on a dour, brutally insensitive note, and rather than explode into David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” or a moody ambient soundscape, a light patter of drums shambles into “Hey Joe” as the credits roll, a 1960s rock standard performed by Gainsbourg for the film. It’s lyrics chronicle some of the latest events in the film, and suggests that Joe’s story isn’t over. On first impressions, the finale disappointed me. It’s dreary, and doesn’t add much color to the film beyond a flailing twist, whereas the final scenes in Breaking the Waves or The House That Jack Built completely alter readings of the films. What’s more, Gainsbourg’s faint, weary voice doesn’t contradict any of the finale’s emotional baggage; rather, it prods you to imagine spending even more time with Joe. Nymphomaniac is a laborious film to get through, one that happens to be full of rule-breaking filmmaking and fascinating cultural critique, but it takes mental energy to think back to each conversation and digression, or every time Seligman and Joe crack a joke that doubles as a 4th-wall breaking jab. It’s bold to ask an audience to prepare for more after they’ve just spent hours listening to Joe’s life story, which she tells to convince Seligman (the audience) that she is an evil person. But it’s also another tactic to get the viewer out of their skin and into the film’s, to see Joe as not just a symbol, but as a person who’s as real as the film has told us she is. It’s the left-handed choice, and it’s the only one left.

Watch the video essay here


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