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Strange Bed Fellows: Female Sexuality And The Male Imaginary In Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac

2065 words - 9 pages

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013) sparked controversy even before its stateside release during a matinee screening of Disney’s Frozen (Buck/Lee, 2013) in Tampa, Florida. The usual routine began as the projectionist prepared to screen the film: the lights of the cinema began to dim, the projection screen turned black, and the usual filler of cartoons and trailers started rolling. And then something unusual happened. According to one unsuspecting grandmother, “They put in the filler, it looked like Steamboat Willie, the old Mickey Mouse cartoon, and then all of a sudden it goes into this other scene” (Guardian, “Nymphomaniac Trailer”). This “other scene” was the red-band teaser for ...view middle of the document...

Nymphomaniac, the third and final installment of von Trier’s “depression trilogy” preceded by Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011), tells the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac and the film’s narrator. The film begins with a contemplative tracking shot of Joe on the ground in an alley, bloodied and beaten. Seligman, an older man best described as a monkish academic, finds Joe and brings her up to his flat where he tends to her wounds and inquires about her life. von Trier’s original intention was to release Nymphomaniac in two distinct versions: a “softcore” version for mainstream theaters, and a “hardcore” version, which would include lengthier and more explicit sex acts. Over time, this idea was shelved after von Trier said he was unwilling to trim the film’s five and a half hour running time. Editing control was eventually handed over to producer Peter Albaek Jensen, who cut Nymphomaniac down to four hours in order for the film to be widely released (Guardian, “Final Cut”). The final product is a four-hour story divided in two volumes and eight chapters; Volume I follows young Joe (Stacy Martin) in the fashion of a coming-of-age narrative, and Volume II follows the older Joe as she attempts to regain the vaginal sensation that she lost at the end of Volume I.
Volume I of Nymphomaniac met with a flurry of mixed reviews after its limited stateside release in March of 2014, dropping from a meta-rating of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes to an average of 76 by May of 2014. Liel Leibovitz interprets Nymphomaniac as a defense of Jewish theology, claiming that the emphasis on religious symbols throughout the film makes it “a profoundly theological work of art and one of the most passionate apologias of Judaism ever attempted” (TabletMag, “Jewish Theology”). Batya Ungar-Sargon, however, remains mystified by this praise: “[H]ere is the truth about Nymphomaniac: there is nothing sexually transgressive in the film . . . careful viewing reveals that Joe’s sexual pleasure is often compromised, and more often about pleasing men” (Tablet, “Misogynist”). The common assumption of von Trier’s work is that women in his films are portrayed as masochists, whose salvation is typically afforded by an older man or a strong, male lover. In this essay, I examine Nymphomaniac alongside the insight of Catherine Breillat, a French director associated with the New Extremism movement and who is renowned for her explicit depictions of sexual intercourse. In order to better contextualize Nymphomaniac, I will discuss von Trier’s supposed proximity to the pornographic, including his own thoughts on the matter and his involvement with the Danish “Puzzy Power” movement. The primary concern of von Trier’s film is not the sexual act but the problematic nature of cinematically representing women’s sexuality. Nymphomaniac produces a complex understanding of female sexuality—however, by means of a violent encounter and its overt valuing of male characters,...

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