Saturday, March 21, 2015
Nymphomaniac (Volume 2)
Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (Volume 2) in DVD form has occupied my shelf for six weeks at least, an obstruction clogging my Netflix queue with the sullen persistence of a bad conscience or an intestinal blockage. The movie is 3 1/2 hours long, relentlessly obscene, and joyless -- apparently, the lot of a nymphomaniac is not a happy one. There are a few amusing gags and, of course, the subject matter has a dour fascination, but the film, like most of von Trier's pictures, presents itself as treacherous and daunting summit to be scaled, less a film than an achievement like a marathon to be endured. The second half of a gargantuan and encyclopedic movie (the whole enterprise is more than six hours long), Nymphomaniac (Volume 2) chronicles a woman named Jo's further sexual adventures, leading inevitably, in the world-view of the censorious Danish provocateur to the heroine's degradation and doom. As I have pointed out in my earlier review of the film's first part, Lars von Trier, no less than his mentors Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman, is first, and foremost, a moralist. Moralists tend to revert to Enlightenment imagery -- Stanley Kubrick, who can also be characterized as a moralist, used stark symmetry in his films and, whenever possible, set his stories in 17th and 18th century townhouses and palaces. (In his last picture, Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick featured orgies that might have been imagined by de Sade occurring in a stately and remote country manor.) Similarly, von Trier's approach to his lurid material is scientific, digressive, derived, it seems, from Diderot and de Sade. Jo, a exemplar of passion untrammeled by morality, narrates her sordid story to Seligman, a kindly asexual intellectual (the interlocutor's Jewish name means "blessed man"). Seligman embodies the values of the liberal Enlightenment -- he refuses to condemn Jo for her depravity (notwithstanding her repeated demands that he denounce her) and devises Freudian and other socio-economic, cultural, and psychological explanations for Jo's perverse behavior. The crux of the film involves a long and spectacularly horrific abortion sequence, an eight minute travail that I was unable to watch. Jo finds herself pregnant and demands an abortion. The nameless and abstract society in which she lives -- it is a cold-looking Denmark (actually Rhineland-Westphalia) where everyone speaks English but with a variety of accents, an icy autumnal deserted place that we might call vonTrier-land: this place, a schematic modern everywhere that is nowhere, von Trier's denuded utopia, is liberal like Seligman and anxious to facilitate the heroine's abortion in a nice, clean clinic, but only if she will cooperate with a brief psychiatric consultation to determine that her consent to the procedure is legitimately "informed." Jo refuses to provide reasonable answers to the questionnaire that the psychologist has asked her to complete and, in fact, expresses a radically purist pro-choice position: not only is my fetus my own to destroy, you don't have any right to ask me any questions at all about my decision, a choice that seems motivated by Jo's frantic, hysterical rage. When the clinic's psychologist pronounces Jo insane, and, therefore, unable to elect the procedure, she goes home and designs some gruesome homemade surgical equipment -- hangers with hooks, curved knitting needles, an improvised home abortion kite -- and, then, goes to work on her crotch, a kitchen-floor operation visualized in massive gynecological close-ups replete with spurting blood. When she finally hooks the embryo with one of her tools, von Trier in his customary mode as Enlightenment philosophe cuts to an ultrasound image showing the fetus snagged on the hook and neatly drawn out the vagina -- scientifically perceived, this is what an abortion looks like, von Trier concluding his anatomical image with a horrific shot of the mangled corpse dragged out of Jo's vulva and deposited in gouts of blood on her kitchen floor. Of course, Seligman is utterly appalled and tells her that she should not have described the procedure in so much gory detail -- "it will deter young women who require an abortion," Seligman says with characteristic liberal tolerance. Jo argues that honesty requires that we plunge into, and wholly accept, the gruesome aspects of creaturely existence -- and von Trier obligingly cuts to a head-crushing forceps used in late-term abortions and slaughterhouse imagery of beef cattle being dissected in a packing plant. This moment in the film, I think, is the key to the whole enterprise, a massive philosophical study of the ethics of representation. Seligman thinks that certain things shouldn't be represented -- abortion should not be shown because the bloody imagery will deter abortions and the right to an abortion is a prerequisite to a liberal enlightened society. Jo thinks that those, like her, who elect to have an abortion should have the courage to face the physical implications of their decisions -- positions get reversed in a dizzying way, and, for a moment, Seligman seems about to become a variant on Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor -- the values of liberal society must be preserved at all costs, even if this means torture and the cynical promulgation of untruths. Similarly, a liberal society maximizes sexual freedom -- but isn't Jo the reductio ad absurdam of this concept? if you want sexual liberation, von Trier seems to assert, then, I will show what this looks like pornographic detail. Although I dislike von Trier's strategy, his philosophical motivations justify, I suppose, his use of the graphic, generally unwatchable, imagery showing the kitchen-floor abortion and his use of obscene, if generally emetic, sexual imagery. If you want to talk about the politics and ethics of representation, then, I suppose it's legitimate to shove the viewer's nose in what can't (or shouldn't) be represented. This is a key to the entire film. Jo's nymphomania has resulted in clitoral and vaginal anesthesia. In an effort to combat this syndrome, Jo pursues ever more extreme forms of stimulation. She beats herself like a 13th century penitent and, then, picks up two burly Black men, brothers, it seems, who subject her to double penetration, the whole time bickering in some African language because their penises keep ramming into one another "through the narrow wall of tissue" as Jo describes this interlude to Seligman. Like many of Jo's sexual encounters, this escapade ends with the two men engaging in a lengthy harangue that neither Jo nor we can understand. Unhappily married, Jo sneaks out of her humble apartment from time to time to visit a sadist who ties her to a sofa and beats her with a variety of instruments lovingly filmed by von Trier's camera -- the director likes to show tools of this sort as witness his careful presentation of the home-make operating kit. While Jo is being tortured, her three-year old toddler crawls out of bed and goes onto the balcony to enjoy a snowstorm, a scene that alludes to von Trier's previous nightmare movie about mourning, sex, and death, Antichrist (in which Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg make love, ignoring their small child who falls from a window to his death). In Nymphomaniac, the baby doesn't fall, but Jo's husband (Shia LaBeouf -- can that possibly be his name?) discovering the child on the balcony in the empty apartment, throws Jo out when she returns battered and bloody from her assignation with the sadist. Throughout these proceedings, von Trier cuts away from the sex and violence to lengthy colloquies in a grim, sepia-toned apartment between Seligman and the badly beaten Jo (he has literally picked her up out of the gutter) -- Seligman interrupts Jo's narrative with digressions about the difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholics, Freudian psychoanalysis, or the theory of knots (when Seligman digresses to tell Jo about a knot used in mountain-climbing and useful in bondage and discipline, Jo sniffs and says: "That's your worst digression ever."). The film's frame story involves Jo, like de Sade's Justine or Juliette, or like Scheherezad in the Arabian Nights, narrating her sexual history to Seligman. Like Justine, Jo has been badly beaten and, as they say, has "been rode hard and put away wet" -- Charlotte Gainsbourg's performance as Jo goes beyond courage into realms of reckless self-abnegation and she spends most of the film looking haggard, her face bruised and her lips split, stringy hair that exudes grease drizzling over her features. (Interestingly, she has the same kind of nipples that made Farrah Fawcett Major famous.) The frame story is divided into chapters that take their thematic structure from objects in Seligman's Spartan apartment, the furnishings as it were of the asexual encyclopedist's mind -- an icon, a fishing lure, a stain on the wallpaper that looks like a gun, a battered mirror. The film is a tour of the universe, portraying the world as a place in which the sleep of logic and reason, the encyclopedist's rational kingdom of knowledge, is afflicted by nightmare passion. You can admire this film while detesting it -- and, I suppose, this is von Trier's intent. I just wish the movie were less punishing and funnier. There is a good gag in one of the sex scenes -- the sadist demonstrates what he calls the "silent duck," forming this hand into a beaklike fist and, then, probing Jo's entrails with it. The waggish von Trier cuts a flock of loudly quacking ducks and, then, Seligman bemused: "I'd hate to know what the 'quacking duck' would be like," he says with a poker face.