`Nymphomaniac` is the story of a special sex life. A woman (the first part ends when she is still young) has countless affairs, sometimes even several a day. From the mass of lovers, there are some more ‘representative’ that stand out of the crowd. Here is a first specificity: the director conceived his film as a kaleidoscope of erotic situations, yet integrated in the scheme of a succession of innumerable relations. As the title warns us, it is the story of a nymphomaniac, but far from analysing a ‘pathological’ case, the suggestion inevitably refers to a way of life, a choice. The woman experiments by assuming a ‘coldness’ of sentiments (one time she is even the victim of an unpredictable episode of falling in love) and is tempted by the ‘symphony’ (theorised by another character, who plays the role of ‘devil’s advocate,’ trying to get her rid of her late qualms of conscience) of parallel relations.
In other words, full-time sex. How representative is this transgression of psychological measures? And how truly existentially transgressive it is? The impression however is one of quantity agglomeration, without quality spikes (without dialectic, Hegel would say). There is also a slight differentiation of the types of lovers, which corresponds to some parallel (and contradictory) erotic aspirations, but such an erotic phenomenology seems rather ‘dietetic,’ meant to prevent the apathy (which actually occurs at the end of the first part, somehow heralding the ‘spicier’ S&M ingredients of the second part). The protagonist has no complex (actually she wouldn’t have any reason for it, after she began her career by offering herself to several unknown men in a train’s toilet and even seducing a husband who was hurrying home to leave his wife pregnant), nor does she suffer for some ‘failure’ (except for the passenger episode of infatuation). Everything relies on a slight and unstoppable seduction, like sexuality were just a puppeteer which handles his puppets.
How good, in terms of art, is this film? Lars von Trier declared his admiration for Andrei Tarkovski, whom he dedicated his `Antichrist` (because, despite of very different aesthetics, an analogy with ‘Stalker’ is not so absurd), which makes less ubiquitous the presence of a Russian icon in the house of an atheistic Jew. It is an obvious aspiration for the divine ‘pardon’ granted to a nymphomaniac’s journey, toward the redeeming of a not so happy life (the second part is expected to be darker). The Danish director, with all his iconoclasm, ranges in the double tradition of Nordic cinema, a rightful successor of Bergman: sexuality tormented by the burden of the conscience of sin and the ‘pagan’ aspiration of rejoicing without moral concern. He reinterprets old Christian themes, such as ‘sanctity’ or ‘sacrifice’ (in an original perspective in `Breaking the waves`), but excels particularly in what – in the past – was called demonology (the peak of his art being Dogville`, a real theorem of corrupting the state of grace). But in `Nymphomaniac` (the first part, at least) the dialectic tensions of `Breaking the waves` misses, dilluted by the (psychologically unconvincing) portrait of a large ‘erotic polyformism.’
The attempt to think by ignoring the concept of ‘sin’ is undermined by a double failure. The 1996 movie was about as marriage (although the wife was somehow mentally impaired) and the final adulteries pretended to be the inverted form of expiation. This symphony lacks a ‘conductor,’ same Fellini’s orgies had as symbolic conductor’s stick the whip used by Marcello Mastroiani to bring order into the chaos. Probably this is why the whip inevitably becomes sado-maso. But the main failure is that of a missed subversiveness. ‘The last tango in Paris’ explored the labyrinth of an intimacy that led to personal implosion, while the first part of `Nymphomaniac` does not exceed the level of a psychoanalytic interrogation about the ambiguous relations between pleasure and death, or incest. A succession of snapshots with penises (which reminds, in terms of aesthetic artifice, the much better end of `Dogville`) is set side-by-side to moments of paternal tenderness, strolls through the ‘pure’ beauty of gardens explicitly alternate with explicit scenes of coitus, tasting candies is in the succession of a fellatio on train, sifting through a herbaria can succeed sodomy, while the organ tonalities of Bach accompany various erotic poses. This ‘montage’ also denotes the attempt of assembling the ‘animal’ sexuality with the more subtle aspirations of the erotic soul. But does it succeed? If we compare it to another recent success, ‘La vie d`Adele’ by Abdellatif Kechiche, we can rather tend toward a negative answer. The film of the French-Tunisian succeeds in more convincingly mix the layers of an existence, precisely because we feel a common personal energy transmitted through subtle communicating vessels. In the film of Lars von Trier, the person is rather like a tankard restored from splinters.