On My Screen No. 9 | Nymph()maniac

By David D. Robbins Jr.

“Nymph()maniac,” a two-part drama from director Lars von Trier, purports to be about sex addiction if you read some of the reviews written about the film. You’d think it was akin to its male-centric counterpart, Steve McQueen’s “Shame”. But I’d suggest that the film really isn’t about this at all, and I’m thankful it isn’t. No, this isn’t a self-help weeper about the ills of sex addiction. It’s a film about sexuality in general, a vehicle for von Trier to wax philosophical about our needs for sex, our so-called perversities, and even the psychological motivations behind each person’s individual wants and desires. The film features a number of top-billed actors in parts large and small, including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Willem Dafoe, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, and a superb scene of acting from Uma Thurman.

The film begins in England, snow falling softly on a woman named Joe (Gainsbourg) who lies beaten and unconscious in an alley, where she is helped by a lonely older man named Seligman (Skarsgard). He comes to her assistance and say he’s going to call the police, but she tells him not to, so he takes her back to his apartment to treat her injuries, let her rest, and give her food. He asks her what happened and Joe says she’s a nymphomaniac and explains that in order for him to truly understand how she ended up in the alley, she would have to start from the beginning of the story. The rest of both parts of the film is about trying to understand who Joe is, and by extension, who exactly Seligman is too.

Okay, so the premise is a tad unreal, but it works well enough, continuing through her extended flashbacks, where we see a young Joe (Stacy Martin) living with her distant mother (Connie Nielson) and her gentle father (Christian Slater). Her parents’ relationship is clearly dysfunctional, and that’s only the beginning of Joe’s lessons in sex and love. She can’t connect, and in some ways, like most young girls, is playing out sexual roles according to her friends’ precepts. She tries sex, like any young girl, and also begins to see it in terms of competition, where  she and a friend challenge each other to see who can have sex with the most men on a train — with the prize being pride and a bag of chocolates. As the story advances in years, Joe’s sex life becomes so vast she begins to forget the names of her partners, and resorts to listing them (and non-sexual acquaintances) as letters of the alphabet. Throughout the film, Seligman, after hearing Joe’s stories, puts a sort of intellectual, Freudian spin on her sexual tales of bondage, sadism, and degradation.

“Nyph()maniac” borrows cinematic language from preceding films, in an wonderful way. There are touches of “Eyes Wide Shut” and perceived sexual debauchery, there’s “Tree of Life” in its largess and scope, the niche sexuality of “Crash”, which like the “Piano Teacher” teeters on the edge of sexual violence, and it even echoes a line from Catherine Breillat’s 1999 film “Romance”, where her lead character Marie says she wants a man with enough girth to “fill” her void, just as Gainsbourg’s Joe makes a sexual request to “fill my holes.” Obviously, it’s not just sexuality being addressed. Needless to say, this film isn’t for the easily offended. Frankly, like Roger Ebert used to say, I too am getting sick and tired of hearing about cinematic sex and nakedness onscreen as worse than murder, when action films strafe 100 people and can still be called entertainment as usual. Get over it. Everyone screws. I suppose I have less of a problem with viewing vivid sex onscreen because I come into a film with the assumption that behind closed doors everyone’s sex life would be deemed perverse. But I digress.

Perhaps the closest antecedent to “Nymph()maniac” isn’t a film at all, but rather the works of masochist-poet Laure (written in the early 20th Century) and the novels of French writer Georges Bataille, the author of “Story of the Eye” and “Blue of Noon”. The former is a shocking story that reveals the brutal side of the erotic through forbidden, sexual fantasies of excess. It’s a story of metaphors, with Bataille elegantly and yet grotesquely blending the imagery of a winking eyelash (think the vulvic sexually suggestive bracket in the title of the film) to the shape of a vagina and the sudden goring of a matador in the bull-ring. In fact, if I remember correctly, there’s a masochistic scene in “Blue of Noon” where a character oddly seduces a girl by digging the tines of a fork into her thigh, just as in “Nymphomaniac” we watch Joe experiment with eating utensils in a restaurant — seeing just how many sundae spoons she can put into her vagina. But that scene ends in humor, as Joe and her lover leave the restaurant, spoons dropping from Joe’s skirt, clinking on the ground as she walks out, to the confused astonishment of all the patrons. I’ve read a number of reviews citing the Marquis de Sade and his writings like “Justine” and “Juliette”. But I’ve always felt those works were like put-ons, stories for De Sade’s mental masturbation, as opposed to actualities. De Sade goes to such extremes as to elicit humor, where unlike some other reviewers’ experiences, I didn’t laugh much at “Nymph()maniac” — as much as take it seriously. Though there is one similarity with De Sade’s “The 120 Days of Sodom”, in which items act as talisman to stories.

You’re not going to like either of the main characters by the end of the film. I didn’t. (There’s one scene where Joe’s sex addition takes precedence over watching her own child — and it’ll make you angry.) You might not even like the story (and there is a real plot here), or the graphic scenes may make you squeamish. But there’s something terribly inventive about this film, even the occasional directorial intrusions, like the digital numbers appearing onscreen for the number of thrusts in front and from behind it takes for a young Joe to lose her virginity to Jerome (LaBeouf). (It’s the same numbers used to divide the chapters of the film, five in the first/front, three in the second/back.) There’s also the blunt metaphor of fly-fishing and the bizarre inclusion of Fibonacci numbers, the Prusik knot, the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, and polyphonic harmonies. There are scenes imbued with religion, one in particular where Seligman and Joe try to figure out if Joe had a dream about a miraculous, angelic levitation or if the deeper meaning has something to do with the Whore of Babylon. There are many themes, fascinations and tangents to get lost in while watching this film. But maybe the lesson is more simple, taken from a mantra said by Joe throughout the film: “The secret ingredient to sex is love.”

Note: You can rent/watch both parts of “Nymph()maniac” at Amazon.com, or wait for the U.K. Artificial Eye release coming out next week. Both the Amazon version and Artificial Eye blu-ray consist of four-hours in two-parts. The original film is said to be around five hours long, but I don’t see this being released anytime soon, so you might as well get one of these. It’s possible the film’s full version will be released as a special edition, with supplements, some time in the future.

• Viewed today …

I just got around to watching Fox Cinema Archive’s print of the Ray Milland and Jean Peters vehicle, “It Happens Every Spring” (1949). It’s the story of a science professor turned baseball pitcher who accidentally discovers a liquid formula that creates a curve-ball that can’t be hit. You see, the chemical “methylethylpropylbutyl,” is repelled by wood, and when rubbed on a baseball … Well, you get the point. In a way, this film seems to predate a concept like the wacky Fred MacMurray character who accidentally invents Flubber in “The Absent-Minded Professor” (1961). Strangely, as I watched this film, I felt like it was the kind of film someone like Cary Grant could have made too.

It’s charming in ways, especially when the aw-shucks nature of Milland is paired off with the pretty Jean Peters (“Pickup on South Street”) or the gregarious Paul Douglas. There’s nothing earth-shattering about the treatment of this plot, and certainly if you like this type of niche genre, you might be more entertained by Grant playing Dr. Barnaby Fulton, an absent-minded research chemist who develops an elixir of youth in Howard Hawks’ “Monkey Business” (1952). But “It Happens Every Spring” is entertaining, without pretense, and is one of the earliest films of its kind. 

• Upcoming Releases …

… “Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection”, put out by Arrow Films on June 30th, brings together Walerian Borowczyk’s key films from a twenty-five-year period stretching from 1959 through to 1984.

… Flickr Alley has two sets of note coming out: a dual edition DVD/blu-ray set of 12 restored films from Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual Film Corporation days and a blu-ray collection of 50 original Mack Sennett Keystone Studios silent and sound films.

… Doris Day is 90-years-old and TCM is releasing two two-film sets in its “Greatest Classic Films” collection. They feature films already available in other formats: “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” and “The Glass-Bottom Boat”, and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and “On Moonlight Bay”. I can’t tell you if these films are different in any way or simply reissued to mark an occasion.

… Criterion is releasing a whopping six-film set called “The Essential Jacques Demy”, which includes the much-revered “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and a film (“Lola”) previously available only through Mr Bongo Films.

… I made purchases of two new discs, that I’ve yet to watch, “Sleep My Love”, the Douglas Sirk-directed final teaming of Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche, and a flier-buy from VCI of “Stolen Face”, a film starring femme fatale Lizabeth Scott and Paul Henreid (“Casablanca”) — the latter who has ironically had two films released recently involving facial surgery. (Film Chest’s “Hollow Triumph”.)

… U.K. distributor, Network, has released it’s 12th  volume in the “Ealing Studios Rarities Collection”. I wasn’t much interested in three out of the four films. But one caught my eye, director Carol Reed’s “Laburnum Grove” (1936). Graham Greene said it was “an English film one can unreservedly praise”. The story is adapted from JB Priestley’s play about the hidden price of suburban respectability. Just watch the short trailer posted by Network on YouTube and you’ll see a hilarious scene, with star Edmund Gwenn as a man who cheerfully announces to his sponging relatives that he is a forger of counterfeit bonds and notes. 

• On Netflix ...

… First there’s “Good Ol’ Freda”, about Freda Kelly, who worked for 11 years as the secretary and fan club president for The Beatles. She had been previously silent about her experiences, so much so, that her current friends and employers didn’t even know of her previous life. It’s a beautiful documentary because she can provide insight, especially into the early beginnings of The Beatles, without dropping in bombshells. She’s clearly a lady of class who wants nothing more than to document a time she remember with fondness, as opposed to creating any gossip for money.

… Be sure to watch “Milius: The Greatest Filmmaker You Never Knew”. It’s the story of John Milius, screenwriter and sometime director, who grew up in the early film-school days with friends, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola. In it you’ll hear the tales of a life lived for a singular vision. Milius is best known for contributing some of the best dialogue in “Jaws”, “Dirty Harry” and for directing “Conan the Barbarian”, “Red Dawn” and for writing lines like “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” from “Apocalypse Now”.

… Also, Netflix is streaming “Punk Singer”, a glorious 2013 documentary film directed by Sini Anderson about feminist singer Kathleen Hanna who fronted bands Bikini Kill, The Julie Ruin, and Le Tigre, and who began what is called the riot grrrl movement. There’s a lot of old footage, interviews with the singer, and talks about her friendship with former Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain (who incidentally took her phrase for the name of the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). But what turns this documentary on it’s head is when it shifts from remembrance into the real scary problems of Hanna’s 2010 diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease.

• On Amazon.com … 

One of the great films of 2013, that got passed over for the most part, is “Hannah Arendt”, the story of German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta.  Actress Barbara Sukowa is marvelous as Arendt. What makes this film remarkable is also what made her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” remarkable. Oddly, when I read it years ago, I didn’t realize it originally began as a series of articles written for The New Yorker. I just thought it was a philosophical digression written during the time she attended the Eichmann trial. It’s a brave work, in that Arendt writes about going to see Eichmann on trial — thinking she’ll see a monster. But instead she finds a boring, methodological bureaucratic, who in her judgement, might not even be anti-Semitic. She suggests that he looked at the process of gassing Jews as something he didn’t do himself in a literal sense. In other words, he may have been in charge of the trains, the tracks — but he disassociated himself from what happened to the Jews after that fact. She comes to the conclusion that evil isn’t some bogeyman, it’s when regular people act without thought for anyone else, and when human beings act as automatons without conscience of action. She says it’s the absence of thought that brings about evil, and in a way, it seems banal. That’s as scary a philosophical thought as any.

 

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