Nymphomaniac – split into two ‘volumes’ for its initial, soft-core release – forms the third part of the ‘depression’ trilogy crafted by the not-so-merry prankster of the European arthouse, Lars von Trier.
Each part of the trilogy has explored an age-old religious concept through the prism of our modern moral malaise: Antichrist took on evil; Melancholia, annihilation; and now we have Nymphomaniac, a gloomy epic about carnal lust. The story is told mainly in flashbacks, as self-proclaimed nymphomaniac Joe (longtime von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg) regales her 50-year sexual odyssey to kindly, monkish bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who finds her beaten and bloodied in the alleyway outside of his flat.
Despite the promise of rampant graphic sex, a cum-face strewn ad campaign and the inclusion of Hollywood walking joke of the moment, Shia LaBeouf (playing Joe’s mockney sweetheart Jerome), Nymphomaniac is easily the least saucy and most downbeat of the three. It’s easy to see why. The discussion around sex today is as confused as it is depressing. Sex, one of humanity’s most private and intimate acts, is constantly dragged out into the public square. The poking and prodding of professional ‘sexperts’, which it depresses me to say is now a genuine profession, have turned sex into a skill, a hobby, a tool to mental wellbeing – an object stripped of its intimately ascribed meaning. Meanwhile, the gains of sexual liberation are constantly being called into question. Quack doctors nowadays are trying to rebrand promiscuity as a pitiable addiction, while reactionary moralisers insist that the revelations about supposedly rampant paedophilia in the 1970s are the malevolent legacy of the 60s summer of love.
The early chapters of Joe’s story are the stuff of banal, pulp fantasy. We see the teenage Joe stalk train cars in hotpants, competing with her best friend ‘B’ to see who can cajole the most men into shagging them in the carriage lav, all set to the tune of ‘Born to be Wild’. Starting a kind of pseudo-Satanic secret society with a few friends, they set out to reject the ‘bourgeois’ and ‘sentimental’ notions of love and relationships.
Brought up in a fractious family by an unfeeling, solitaire-playing mother (Connie Nielson) and her wistful gynaecologist father (Christian Slater), Joe revels in her insatiable lusts as a kind of lame rakish rebellion against buttoned-up society. Unfortunately, even as Joe grows up, falls in love, and has a child, this viewpoint never really evolves. Forced by a later employer to attend a sex-addiction self-help group, she storms out, refusing to accept the self-pitying category foisted upon her. It could be read as a valiant stand against modern-day white-coated moralisers who try to insist, like the Victorian moralisers of old, that promiscuity is some kind of disorder, a lurking dark propensity or, in today’s language, ‘addiction’, which renders people helpless to their passions. But it isn’t. The director, who had the word ‘FUCK’ tattooed across his knuckles at the tender age of 54, seems surprisingly content to wallow in a decidedly immature perspective.