There is a famous movie, made in 1989 for BBC TV, called Elephant. The film, shot like a documentary, shows 18 murders committed during the fighting in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The movie, directed by Alan Clarke, is based on actual police reports and the murders are staged as a series of Steadi-cam tracking shots, each culminating in a killing. Neither the gunmen, nor the victims, are identified in any meaningful way and there is no plot and no back-story -- we see no motivation for the killings and the film offers no explanation for anything that we are shown. (Elephant has been widely influential -- Gus van Sant appropriated the name for his 2003 documentary-like reconstruction of Columbine massacre; the recent film, '71 also mostly shot with a handheld Steadi-cam stages several sequences in a way that mirrors the earlier picture on the Irish "troubles"). The film's point seems to be that the act of killing may become prosaic, repetitive, and completely meaningless in certain contexts. All of the graphic sex in von Trier's Nymphomaniac films is desensitizing (both figurative as well as literally for the title character), and the procession of sex scenes with anonymous men and groups of men is clinically portrayed as prosaic and meaningless as the killings in Elephant. The problem exhibited by von Trier is that his enormous film doesn't have the courage of its own convictions. The director attenuates his focus on the heroine's sexual pathology by trying to make the film about other things -- Fibonacci sequences illustrated in terms of the number of penile thrusts, the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, botany, fly-fishing, the racking action of an automatic hand-gun. The movie's digressions ultimately seem desperate -- mere sex is not enough and von Trier wants the movie to be about something other than mere sex and a nymphomaniac. Part of the problem, I suppose, is the picture's sheer and obsessive length. A courageous study of Jo's life would require us to look at a meaningless and completely fungible series of sex acts, recognize that Jo derives enormous pleasure from those acts, and, simply, leave the audience with an enigma, an insoluble problem in psychology. "I am a nymphomaniac," Jo declares, refusing to use the de riguer term, "sex addict." proposed by the therapist leading a polite and homely group of chubby nymphomaniacs. With this expression, followed by von Trier in the title of his film (except his orthography shows the "o" as ()...), Jo seems to suggest that she is sacred and monstrous, a figure from classical mythology, something from an archaic, ancient, and radically irrational world. But von Trier keeps lassoing her and dragging his nymphomaniac back into his 18th century universe of explanations, theories, and concepts. In part, this tendency arises from Lars von Trier's very close identification with Jo. At one point, Jo expresses sympathy for Hitler. At Cannes in the course of an ill-advised press conference after a showing of his Melancholia, von Trier, who likes to shock people, said that he identified with Hitler. Predictable outrage followed. Seligman is similarly appalled: censoriously, he notes that the heroine is a nymphomaniac who has shown sympathy for pedophiles, suggested that abortion is an evil, and, now, endorsed Hitler. Pursing his lips, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) says: "Well, I suppose it had to happen."
In some ways, von Trier is bracingly honest. He doesn't try to create any childhood trauma to explicate Jo's conduct -- in fact, he takes pains to show that she had a happy childhood and close, loving, and normal relationship with her father. The only explanation for Jo's nymphomania is that she enjoys sex more than most people and is willing to sacrifice everything, husband, child, job, even her personal safety, for the sensation of orgasm. This seems true in its way and convincing -- her conduct is a matter of a cold and logical economy: if you like sex more than anything else, you will act in the manner that Jo acts. If the film were built on this hypothesis, it would simply follow the model of Clarke's Elephant, one sex scene after another until the time allotted for the film (or its budget) runs out. (A moralizing version of the Elephant scenario is Pabst's 1929 Pandora's Box -- in that film, the nymphomaniac heroine, Lulu, jumps from bed to bed until she encounters Jack the Ripper who brings her adventures to an end in a London alley. Pabst is similarly clear-sighted about his heroine, but the constraints of his source material, Wedekind's late Victorian play contaminated by late Victorian morality, compel him to a tendentious ending for poor Lulu.) Lars von Trier is fundamentally a moralist, however, and so he has to punish his heroine; her chastening "plots" a situation that is fundamentally "plotless". First, he imposes genital numbness on her. Then, he makes her into a masochist who has to be beaten bloody to experience any sensation; the relationship with the sadist is like something out of science fiction -- it makes no narrative sense at all. Finally, he urges her into a love affair -- love defined by von Trier is "the combination of lust and jealousy" -- that results in Jo's horrific humiliation and betrayal. In a bow to Pabst's Pandora's Box, Jo's is humiliated by her faithless lover, beaten half to death, and pissed-on, in a narrow, slit-like alley, exactly the location where Lulu is disemboweled in the German film. In von Trier's imagination, sex is always accompanied by the specter of death, but, more importantly, by humiliation. At its core, von Trier's problem is that his material is episodic and open-ended -- in principle, Jo can simply go from lover to lover forever. But von Trier has to design an ending for the film. So he brings in Willem Defoe to seduce Jo into working as a thuggish debt collector, a plot development that makes no sense of any kind -- indeed, at one point, Jo denounces her own narrative saying that this part of the story seems designed to "create one of those coincidences that you (referring to the rational Seligman) find so disconcerting and questionable." This part of the movie is inflected with film noir notes -- a movie about sex becomes a film about violence, and, in fact, gangland violence. This seems farfetched and dishonest and, worst of all , completely arbitrary. Further, von Trier feels that he needs to portray Jo's soul in a definitive emblem. And, so, he stages a scene in which the heroine climbs a tall rock to see a ancient, gnarled tree, tattered by the wind, clinging to a crevasse in an ugly black turret of crumbling, weather-beaten stone. The scene is impressive but the emblem seems too reductive -- and, of course, one must ask this question: in this carnival of sex and flesh, what makes us believe there is such a thing as the soul? At the end of the film, the asexual Seligman has become aroused. He approaches the sleeping, battered Jo and, exposing her buttocks, gropes for her. The screen goes black and there is the sound of a gun firing and, then, after an interval, some other noise that I was unable to interpret but that is probably deeply significant. In his customary way, von Trier has equated sex with death. But Seligman's arousal is inconsistent with what we've been shown. Indeed, upon recounting her life story, Jo renounces sex entirely and says that she will become like Seligman, an asexual being. There's nothing in Jo's story that would lead a reasonable liberal man, the voice of reason and tolerance, to become like her -- if anything, the tale would lead to Jo's conclusion, that is, that sex is wholly meaningless and should be renounced. So Seligman's attempted rape, although it brings the film to a conclusion that an alert viewer might have guessed three hours earlier, falsifies the rest of the film; it's not supported by the evidence that we have seen. But von Trier needs an ending, and a movie in which a gun is introduced, requires that the gun be discharged at the climax, and so he contrives a denouement to material that doesn't intrinsically require an ending and, that, indeed, is inconsistent with the very concept of an ending. Not all works of art need to "end"; reality doesn't admit the notion of "endings" -- things just go on and on until we become exhausted and look away or until some other force requires that we close our eyes.