Before reading, please watch the following clip and read the accompanying film review:
Nymphomaniac, stylized as NYMPH()MANIAC, is the third and final film of Lars Von Trier’s ‘Depression Trilogy,’ which also consists of art house gems Antichrist and Melancholia. These films were created during, and inspired by, a period of depression in the director’s life. Each film stars the bleak, understated acting of Charlotte Gainsbourg as an emotionally tormented upper-middle class woman. Although the attached trailer may make the movie seem like a whimsical and sexy adventure story with a dramatic flair, do not be fooled. Watching this five and a half hour long movie, which is presented in two volumes, is just about the least sexy thing that someone could do, aside from creating the film in the first place; it is grueling, shamelessly depraved, and devastating, and I believe that that is just the point.
If Michel Foucault were alive today, I wonder what he would say about this film. It is well known that Foucault was interested in BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism), and themes such as these play a pivotal role throughout. A vital question that needs to be answered when watching the film is “Who has the power?” My first impression is that Joe has the power because she takes control of her own sexuality and wields it, in an Arendtian sense, like a weapon which she uses to callously destroy the relationships of the strangers around her. Upon deeper contemplation however, it seems more to me like Joe’s insatiable need for sex stems not from an innate internal desire, but as result of exposure to sexualized hierarchical structures of power and her desire to be in control of her own life, sexual or otherwise. Sex in the film is never ‘special,’ the way that it is most often depicted in media, nor does it feel especially pornographic (although technically it is). Instead, it is intentionally violent, tedious, and apathetic. This is because to Joe, the thrill comes not from the act of having sex, but rather from the personal power she feels that she gains as a result of it. Consequently, sex became her vice on which she relied for stability and order in what she considered to be a chaotic and meaningless world.
Other instances of Foucauldian tropes playing out on screen include Joe’s confession of nymphomania at a group therapy meeting (the therapist’s response? “We saysex addict.”), her father being a doctor and subsequently gruesomely dying of disease, Joe’s confession to a naive, asexual intellectual and subsequent attempted rape, and perhaps strongest of all, the bondage scene in which Joe goes to a sadist in order to experience pleasure once normal sex could no longer satisfy her (spoiler alert: it works).
If anyone else has seen this movie, I’d be interested in learning your take on it. It’s a very slow paced and depressing movie at times, and certainly not for the faint of heart, but it’s an unquestionably intriguing exploration of the intersection between sex and power that is worth studying.