At first glance, Nymphomaniac sounded like the kind of film I was born to love. Like Joe, the story’s main character, most of my childhood punishments were for games that involved a young friend and a locked bathroom door. As a teenager I considered Nabokov’s Lolita to be both novel and instruction manual, and as an adult made my career writing a controversial novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, that a two-bit erotica writer snubbed as being “pervy.” When I watched the trailer for Nymphomaniac, I was thrilled to see it contained three of my very favorite elements: sex, upsetting people, and Shia LaBeouf stark naked.
The problem? It’s a lousy story.
Let’s start with Joe. In the first frames she is presented as a victim– brutally beat-up and left unconscious in a building alcove– and, once she is “rescued” by the older Seligman, confesses that this happened because she is “a terrible person.” As she begins to spin the tale of her life, we learn that she had a close relationship with her loving (and non-abusive) father, as well as an indifferent one with her mother. From early childhood she shows an awareness of sexual pleasure. Yet for some inexplicable reason, as a teen she decides to “rebel against love”– even though her healthy relationship with her admirable father provides absolutely no rationale for why she would feel this way as a young adult. The only possible motivation is her ill-conceived choice to lose her virginity to a jerk. Speaking as one of millions of women who lost her virginity to a jerk, this can indeed be a disillusioning experience, but is not usually enough to justify– for example– competing to have indiscriminate sex with every man on a passenger train.
Which is what Joe does next. At age 17 she seeks out meaningless, seemingly pleasureless, self-destructive sexual encounters with male strangers– in the very long ‘train scene,’ for no reason other than to win a bag of chocolates from a friend. This puzzling motive is utterly at odds with the claim that she is a nymphomaniac. The compulsive drive that is nymphomania does not require any sort of external reward– the pleasure and sexual release are the reward. Rather than displaying the anxiety and tension of an unfulfilled compulsion, Joe shows only cold calculation. In the final moments of this scene, when she coerces an unwilling man to let her perform oral sex on him, I began adding up her characteristics– manipulation, absence of empathy, lack of guilt or remorse, sense of entitlement, shallow charm– and concluded that she was not a nymphomaniac, but a sociopath.
This is where the film genuinely started to lose me. As an author who spent two years immersed in the world of a woman who gave up everything in service to her compulsive sexual behavior, I’m always terribly curious to see how other writers handle that struggle. But for Joe there is no inner struggle– she’s perfectly happy to live in her sociopathic bubble. Her character has no other interests, no passions, no identity beyond her sexual conquests and her isolated love for her father. She is a dead shell– and worst of all, her behavior impacts absolutely no one, including her.
This is the unforgivable sin of Von Trier’s screenplay. Had I handed this story in to my editor, she would have asked the obvious question: where is the person she hurts? Where is, say, the devoted cousin whose husband Joe seduces? The moment in which her father catches her with one of his trusted friends? Where is the well-meaning man, taken in by her charm, who is devastated when she betrays him? Quite frankly, who gives a crap if Joe sleeps with a thousand anonymous men? I’m far more interested in the one person whose heart is broken by her choices than the hundreds whose bodies are satisfied.
But no such person exists in this story.
Granted, there’s a departure for a “chapter” titled “Mrs. H.” Uma Thurman, playing the title character, is the very best thing about this film. This story of a spurned wife is so absurd that it becomes quite funny. Yet as it travels its narrative arc, Mrs. H. becomes such a venomous caricature– and the reactions of Joe and Mr. H so unbelievable in their stilted silence– that it’s impossible to maintain sympathy for anyone except the H. family’s three quiet sons.
As Joe winds her story toward its conclusion (at least for Part I), she includes a coincidence so unlikely that Seligman, her current knight in shining armor, calls her on it. When he tells her the coincidence strains credulity, she responds– I’m paraphrasing– “Is the story better if you believe me, or if you don’t?”
Oh, Von Trier. You have truly been a bad boy to justify weak storytelling with a line like that one. “Suspend your freakin’ disbelief!” every writer wants to shout once in a while. “Just cut me a little slack, will you!” Hey, we all feel that way sometimes. But you’re not supposed to actually say it!
In the end, Nymphomaniac is a visually provocative movie that provokes not a single interesting question. As Joe’s motivations and actions exist in a vacuum, nothing she says or does says anything meaningful about society, addiction, love or mercy. In terms of sexuality, the trail markers of Joe’s life read far more like a series of male-fantasy Penthouse anecdotes– teenage girls competing to have the most promiscuous sex! Young woman pining after the man who used her and left her unsatisfied!– than a real woman’s formative sexual experiences. The New Yorker called the film “pornographic,” but I would not. It is explicit the way a medical textbook is explicit: functionally, perfunctorily, without effort at eroticism.
I stuck it out through the final fifteen minutes only because– at long last!– the film finally delivered the longed-for scenes of a naked Shia. As I walked out of the theater into a rainy New York City night, I reflected that Sigur Rós’ seven-minute Fjögur Píanó video– also starring LaBeouf in the buff– was more moving, more thought-provoking, and even more erotic than all of Nymphomaniac’s two hours. And perhaps that’s the unintentional message of Von Trier’s “magnum opus”: a little bit of emotional connection is infinitely more satisfying than a whole lot of raunch.