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You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

Lars von Trier, Nymphomaniac, 2013, HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 241 minutes. N (Kookie Ryan), Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and N’s brother (Papou). Production still. Photo: Christian Geisnæs.

PORNOGRAPHY: You know it when it sees you. The most erotic scene in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac—a two-volume, four-hour tour of force—contains no penetration, no fucking, and almost no nudity. Instead, an ice-cool sadist (played in a gray sweatshirt by Jamie Bell) shows us violence without glory, hitting our titular nympho, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), because she needs it—not because he wants to, although he does. In a film by a lesser director, or one less versed in what Leo Steinberg called “the condition of being both deathbound and sexed,” what this protagonist needs (orgasm) and how often (up to ten times a day from age fifteen) would make for a rather simplistic exploitation film; in Nymphomaniac, we are never sure who is being exploited. Like von Trier, Joe tries to outrun social permissiveness in chase of the vanishing forbidden, and of the satisfaction that comes, and only comes, from being told no. It is not desirable to get everything you want.

Most of Nymphomaniac is a porno in ratings only (released unrated in the US, its “true,” hard-core self is hiding somewhere in Europe, like Polanski). It feels more like a legal drama: Nature v. the State. When a stranger, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), finds Joe lying unconscious in a courtyard, he takes her into what will become the “courtroom”: his dusty, sexless chamber. The single bed serves as the “stand” from which Joe (Nature), swearing that she’s “a bad human being,” recounts her lifelong pursuit of heat. “I discovered my power as a woman and used it without any concern for others,” Joe tells Seligman, blankly, when he objects to her self-laceration. In one of her flashbacks, a shady debt collector (Willem Dafoe) explains that “a person should take his crime seriously.” Yes—but is lust very much like intent? Seligman (the State) is asked to judge while we as audience play jury, examining the corpus delicti in elaborate reenactments of jouissance.

The reenactments are divided into eight chapters, each darker than the last. In Volume II, chapter five—that is, three years into her marriage to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), her first and eternally reappearing lover—Young Joe (played by model Stacy Martin) becomes Joe, plain Joe. The shift makes short shrift of prettiness. Martin could only have been hired to parody the male obsession with mute, hymeneal girl-flesh (ahem, Woody) and prove the superiority of sex between adults: Where Martin was pale and limp, Gainsbourg is primed. As for her gender, its function here is allegorical. Just as in the much-maligned and more gorgeous Antichrist (2009), “She” refers no more literally to a woman than does Tiqqun’s Theory of the Young-Girl to a female tween. “She” instead refers to whatever is innate, immanent—id est, the very soul—which “He” attempts to suppress for the good of the greater ego.

Von Trier’s enduring target is poshlost, or as Nabokov had it, poshlust: “Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages . . . overconcern with class or race”—in short, any attempt to unite us against our desires. Let Steve McQueen wax lachrymose on the loss of intimacy in his Shame (2011). “Sexuality,” says Joe, “is the strongest force in human beings.” The orgasm is the least refutable feeling of individuality; your being is never more singular, or less simultaneous with that of another, than when you’re coming. And when Joe loses that unloving feeling, she gives up a whole world (Jerôme, their child, the respect of her coworkers) to get it back. Landing in an employer-mandated, all-female support group that looks so much like a knitting circle it can only be metonymous with “white feminism,” she stands up after three weeks to recant her belief that she is a nymphomaniac (and not a “sex addict,” the sterilizing term of the State), only to tear up the speech and declare, “We are not, and never will be, all alike.” Her transformation from hero or antihero to martyr, complete with a wound between her legs and forty red lashes on her ass, is finished.

The revolution for which a martyr like Joe is required is not at all sexual. It is not even a revolution. It is a simple, Genet-like revolt against the very idea that such a revolt must become a revolution. That the personal must be political, the individual suffixed by -ism. That any want is a “motivation,” any proof we’re not machines a “behavior,” any felt chaos a “pattern” or, worse, a new psychiatric “disorder.” At last, the certainty for which she sacrifices all social connection is this: Nature is evil, and we are alone.

Of course, von Trier is not alone in his retreat from progress and urbanity toward the gathering Sturm und Drang of anti–Big Tech sentiment. With its unbearable beauty and boreal symbolism gone bad, his great Depression trilogy (Antichrist, Melancholia [2011], Nymphomaniac) is the moral antipodes of Terrence Malick’s late, biblical disasters (Tree of Life [2011] and To the Wonder [2012]), but its motive is nearly the same. The problem is that while nature is not innately good, as in Malick, it is not innately evil, as in the last passion play of Lars von Trier. It’s the opposite: neither, which is more horrifying still. Evil is always discriminate. Nature, like a real slut, is not. We choose to see ourselves in it—to personify it, for better or for worse—because the worst truth is that it does not see us at all.

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is being released in two parts: Volume I opens in select cities in the US on March 21; Volume II opens on April 4.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer living in New York.

Lars von Trier, Nymphomaniac, 2013, HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 241 minutes. B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and Young Joe (Stacy Martin). Production still. Photo: Christian Geisnæs.

LARS VAN TRIER gets incredible performances from his female leads, but so do a lot of bad lovers. No wonder the Dogme 95 manifesto for anticinematic filmmaking he peddled two decades ago was called “The Vow of Chastity.” His love of shock is bloodless. Though he has been accused of paternalism and sadism for years, his latest feature, Nymphomaniac—third in the ecstatic, Dogme-smashing Depression trilogy, after Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011)—proves him to be something worse: a soft, fussy masochist begging to be whipped by feminist schoolmarms for the unpardonable essentialism of this 240-minute revenge porn. His revenge is against the very notion of a female Gainsbourg, a libertine who will not be shamed. This idea, c’est dommage, is not new.

In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (1966), the protagonist discovers bondage and practices on a fawn-eyed whore. Chaining her to the bed, he gets rough. She hardly reacts. “The problem,” he says, “is that you are much too accustomed to being abused.” Those who have watched von Trier attempt to hijack the narrative and curse of female heterosexuality since, say, Breaking the Waves (1996) are likely to feel the same way. From the second we see Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying bloodied in a Brussels courtyard, we know that Nymphomaniac will be another old tale of Ruined Woman. The Good Samaritan who tries to help her (Seligman, played with repulsive earnestness by Stellan Skarsgård) becomes her captive as she unspools a parrhesiastic memoir of sex, love, and artful cuntiness that constitutes, in flashbacks, the film’s core narrative. He can resist her only by attacking her, thus revealing her true and—in von Trier’s pagan, or Paglian, view—“natural” capacity for evil.

With Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003), the Dane established himself as a director who would stop at nothing to abase a celebrated or beautiful star; Björk refused to work with him again, and Nicole Kidman declined to reprise her role as (Dogville’s) Grace in Manderlay (2005). For Antichrist, von Trier wanted the fatally attractive Eva Green to play She. No such ease: He got Ms. Gainsbourg, whose sinewy acting game has complicated his primal roles. For one thing, Gainsbourg has never looked “innocent.”

And so, from ages fifteen to thirty, “Young Joe” is tremulously fleshed out by twenty-two-year-old newcomer Stacy Martin, whose energy level is somewhere between ’70s Shelley Duvall and a dead deer. She could only have been hired for her looks, her pearlish skin and symmetry deployed to retroactively humiliate a forty-two-year-old lead who is otherwise too jolie laide to be uglified, and is really the first actor von Trier has found who, like Caroline Ducey in Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999) and Amira Casar in Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell (2004), gets hotter in the face of abasement. But then, as Joe shifts from tender, playful nympho (Martin) to willful maniac (Gainsbourg), something cold occurs: She loses her orgasm, gets depressed, marries Jerôme (played by real-life idiot Shia LaBeouf), and has a baby. “Let’s face it,” Jerôme tells her, just before she trades all human bonds for a teenage dream of life outside society, “you aren’t a mother, Joe.”

Maybe it’s fresh to show a mother refusing to be maternal. The problem is that genitals, no matter how bloody in close-up, do not a woman make. By the time Joe insists on saying “Negro,” assuring us that any woman (by which she means white woman) who is not turned on by “Negroes” is lying, and assumes that because she hears black men speaking a language that isn’t English they do not speak English at all, it’s obvious von Trier is shoving his own dated, reactionary views inside a modern female body and hoping we’ll find it subversive.

Meanwhile, any questions we might have about the plot (Nymphomaniac’s has more holes than a lesbian orgy) or story (speaking of lesbians, no self-respecting nympho would fail to try girls until her forties) are posed for us by the asexual, probably impotent Seligman, who footnotes each of Joe’s tales with wildly unhelpful explanations: Your quest to fuck a whole trainful of guys was just like fly-fishing! Wouldn’t we see your life differently if you were man? The role of socially minded critic goes to a eunuch, pedant, and—in a final twist of hate—villain. Lars, to us: If you don’t like it, cherchez la féministe.

But if the movie ends with (finally!) a satisfying bang, its maker’s motivation is a whimper. He wants both to benefit from the sexism of an industry that will give him $10 million to make a piss-poor imitation of Breillat and to reject the society from which that industry sprang, and so, in a bit of faith gone bad, he identifies with the proudly unfeminine, perversely not-feminist woman. Showing Joe to be the twisted “soul” of a lone oak against a vast, blank sky, he erases that around which the sapling twists. Nature is no more innately female than it is congenitally evil. It seems that way (climate change, apocalypse) when man attempts to govern it too long. He begins to see himself in it—to personify it, for better or for worse—because the worst truth is that it does not see him at all.

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is being released in two parts: Volume I opens in select cities in the US on March 21; Volume II opens on April 4.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer living in New York.