To be honest, I had been avoiding seeing Nymphomaniac Volume I by Lars von Trier. It felt like homework I had to do.
Don’t get me wrong, I love sexuality as a filmmaking subject, in part because it is so difficult to do well. I feel that the 2 most difficult cinema subjects are sex and dreams, because both themes involve conveying subjectivity.
– Fly-fishing is used as an analogy for seduction in Nymphomaniac Vol 1
However I have always felt that Lars von Trier (or Lars Trier as Nicholas von Refn calls him) is a closet Calvinist. After all he’s proved that he’s dogmatic, and his films are full of right-thinking Calvinists, like the village folks in Breaking the Waves — his greatest film to date — and the community that shuns Nicole Kidman’s character in Dogville.
Calvinist stories involve predestination. The rationalism is that, since God is all-knowing, he must know the future, and therefore knows how people will end up. In Calvinist scripts, people are destined to be good or bad. This transforms stories of free will back into Greek tragedy. The best example of a Calvinist filmmaker is Paul Schrader, his scripts are about people doomed to end badly, like the hero of Taxi Driver.
I also understand Calvinism to cast a cultural pall that puts a Puritanical chill on dancing, partying and sensuality in general. Von Trier is almost never sensual, especially when he wants to shock us with nudity or sexuality, as in Idiots.
– A rare sensual moment by von Trier, in Breaking The Waves
Because von Trier can’t really seem to do sensuality, I expected Nymphomaniac to be ice cold, despite its provocative marketing campaign. I was right: there is not one “hot” moment in Nymphomaniac, and no real attempt to portray the sexual act with any (ahem) depth or insight. In that sense it’s similar to Steve McQueen’s Shame, which is not about sex, but about addiction. The chaptered form of Nymphomaniac reminded me of Holy Motors by Leos Carax, though von Trier’s film is less accomplished.
Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by Nymphomaniac. It is no masterpiece, but it is an entertaining collection of film essays that mix short narratives with eclectic reflections about childhood, seduction, fly fishing, Fibonacci series, love and sex, mutual humiliation, a scorned woman, and Bach polyphonies. It’s an open-ended cinema diary from an obsessive intellectual. Truth be told, it’s kind of nerdy.
There is not one real erotic moment in Nymphomaniac, but it does offer an interesting cinematic notebook by an intelligent and talented filmmaker. Nymphomaniac’s marketing tag line is “Forget about love”, more accurately I would say “Forget about sex“… but enjoy the cinema.
The movie that should prove sensual and provocative is Gaspar Noé‘s upcoming pornographic film, which he told me he wanted to shoot without any prosthetics or body doubles. He said he will begin shooting this spring.