Fate and Flesh
by KYLEE LUCE
Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II
dir. Lars Von Trier
The first Google result for “sex ego death” is a crowdfunding attempt from August 2013 that raised 15 dollars. The funds they failed to crowd were intended to erect a “sex and ego death” billboard on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, in order “to MAKE PEOPLE THINK, and through that process gain enough understanding of their ‘true self’—the self without judgments or social constraints.”
Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier’s latest two-part sexual provocation, has a similar aim but with a budget of 10 million; a chunk of change that managed to secure, alongside stars Gainsbourg and Skarsgård, the presence of Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Christopher Walken, and Shia LaBoeuf.
Shia, who might be infamously hotheaded but, as he announced by scrawling in Sharpie across a brown paper bag and wearing said bag over his head at the Berlin premiere, is not famous anymore. Shia's supersized sense of self has long since bestowed him the post-empire honor of being a celebrity who Gawker, along with everyone else, hates; but he’s brilliantly cast here because plenty of us would still fuck him.
Incidentally, the first Google result for just “sex ego” is the wiki for the term “Ego-dystonic sexual orientation,” described as a “mental disorder characterized by having a sexual orientation or an attraction that is at odds with one’s idealized self-image.” My grey matter doesn’t really square with psychoanalysis; “It’s boring,” I’ve said enough times to bore myself. But early this year my eyes fell on the phrase “ego death” and snared there, mid-Google search for “sleep deprivation,” which I did after reading a study showing that ceasing to sleep for a few days was temporarily effective in cutting through the psychic chokehold of depression. Nymphomaniac is the last entry in Von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy.”
The rug wasn’t exactly pulled out from underneath me. I didn’t trip so much as decide to jump, fling myself from a flying carpet; but there’s a dim panic that descends when major pieces of your life tumble into chaos like a pile of loose change, a slanting tendency to do things you thought weren’t like you at all. Like, for instance, staying awake for two days straight and then going to a mall-watching assorted legs wander the sky bridge over the street separating the cheaper stores (glaring Forever 21 bags stuffed like suitcases) from the seductively expensive Tiffany’s section, a rail train slotting down the middle like needle into vein; like suddenly finding it unbearable to be anything close to sober in the presence of other people; like finding it even more unbearable to be alone.
In this phantom-limb delusion of fresh heartbreak I told myself that love was a flying carpet and I had rug burns; that this faded, insomniac floating felt like salve.
I was sleep-deprived and riding shotgun on a long drive when, down a barren stretch of desert road, talk turned to Lars Von Trier; someone said he thought Melancholia was meant to indict us. I asked if every movie had to have a message, if intent even mattered (it does, a little bit); but Von Trier isn’t quite on par with the natural nihilist in Harmony Korine, wrecking sandcastles for fun. Closer to him is David Lynch, whose work is like a long bath just beneath a hard surface, like dunking into a subliminal cenote.
Twin Peaks was the first thing I felt like watching after moving into a new apartment for one, because its project was to map the blood relation between nostalgic beauty and death, between ugliness and love. And in Lynch’s cosmology their symmetry has a glinting refulgence. The best scenes make me feel the same way that Von Trier’s best movies do, which is drenched in a kind of molecular, vibrating awareness.
In Von Trier’s own words, “Maybe Lynch and I share a fetish.”
We meet the nymphomaniac facedown in the street. Joe (an ever-magnetic Charlotte Gainsbourg) is bruised and bleeding when the sexless, aging Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) takes her in and makes her tea. “What happened?” he asks. She replies, “I’m just a bad human being.” He tells her he doesn’t believe in such a thing, and from there she proceeds to relay her entire life’s sexual story to a riveted audience of one.
For a memorable time in her early adulthood Joe is fucking “up to ten men a night.” In carefully orchestrated trysts Stacy Martin, young Joe’s avatar of droll face and lithe flesh, spends Volume I gyrating against nearly a new body per frame per second. Young bodies, old bodies, bodies that walk like big cats, bodies that do nothing but eat her cunt; the only constants being that they’re all men and her own omnipresent nudity. But the most memorable, and most Lynchian, scene of the first film finds her fully clothed, staring blankly at the floor, while Uma Thurman’s scene-stealing scorned wife (“Mrs. H.”) tries to scorch her from her mistress’ seat.
It doesn’t work. Joe’s sexual nihilism turns out to be flameproof right up until her desire burns out. But sometime during the close shots of the philandering father’s children’s faces, or definitely by the time Mrs. H. departs down the stairs with a piercing, anti-comic shriek of pain, it occurred to me that Nymphomaniac, in spite all those O-face promotional posters, is hilariously unsexy. Which should have come as no surprise — I remember feeling more titillated watching Rooney Mara’s Dragon Tattoo rape scene, a textbook example of men filming the sexual violation of women like they’re gunning for an AVN award, than anything Von Trier has ever done.
Tiny pleasure-rushes from a few beautiful bodies in the buff (LaBeouf had a great personal trainer, and Martin might be a real mermaid, the kind that drown men for fun) flutter like dying insects under the film’s morgue-esque moods. In young Joe’s final scene on a speeding train every pore on her face pops into relief under sickly fluorescent light, open mouth and lidded eyes evoking an undead Megan Fox, right before she coerces a stranger into a blowjob; the overarching sensation being something like a death dream.
That ever-enduring debate (don’t say Woody All...) about separating the artist from his art has become deeply dull because it’s beside the point. Every known thing about a person inevitably informs their work like tributary streams, all flowing into the same final destination: the noumenal ocean of the Internet, where I read the following Lars Von Trier quote in an interview about Antichrist: "If the film has anything to do, it has to do with that there is no God; that is how I see it.” In the same interview he said he “hadn’t read much of” and “(didn’t) want to talk about” Nietzsche, which didn’t do much to halt a lot of theory-bro thinkpieces, or me. If God is dead, then Antichrist was an arch illustration of his absence, Melancholia an apocalypse fantasy as foray into the gothic swamp of the (mad) mind; Nymphomaniac, on Von Trier’s other hand, tears into the last component of the Cartesian divide: body.
In careening withdrawal from a specific body it feels like you might actually die from an absence of touch. There’s a line at the end of Lindsay Hunter’s short story “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula” that immediately became one of those arrangements of letters etched in tattoo ink across my memory. It’s recurred to me in recent months like a wave of déjà vu: “because if no one is there to touch you are you even really there?”
In a new city and beside a new body, I had the dumb compulsion to say, “This is kind of out of character,” a phrase I had started using like it was a protective umbrella that would shield me from the results. But words aren’t waterproof. Do something outside your idea of yourself and your stick-figure lines just expand to encompass it; everything you’ve ever done is you.
Joe, the teenager who would only fuck a man once, eventually tries to grow up. She falls in love and becomes a breeder; years that she once counted in collected cum pass stoically behind a baby stroller. But after trying on a normal life for size — to our utter unsurprise — it just doesn’t fit. Without her rabid sex-life Joe feels dead. Lust is the closest approximation of living she’s got and she can’t even come. Volume I may witness her watching the shit-and-blood bodily failure and death of her father, but in Volume II she unequivocally declares: the worst thing that ever happened to her was losing her ability to orgasm.
The loss of her desire was the more existential loss, and through his anti-heroine Von Trier asserts the impossibility of mind over matter, or matter over mind. In Nymphomaniac there are only -alities: states of being alive. To mourn, or in Joe’s case to lubricate, is at least a feeling; depression is the state of being without any, the -ality of the void. (“Fill all my holes,” Joe commands Jerome, the only lover she’s ever actually loved, while naked on top of him. “I can’t, Joe,” he says.)
Desperate to “rehabilitate” her sexuality, she resorts to replacing penetration with pain; this time, beneath the spanking-crop of a suave blond dom, it works. To the tune of “FIDO,” her new name, her lust finally moves like the blood to her ass. The most graphic shots by far in this purported porno aren’t of cocks but of purpled and bleeding welts and wounds; and thanks to them she’s back in business, in more ways than one.
But like most hard-won victories, this one comes with casualties; completely gone from her life is her family, is love. Soon she’ll be horizontal in a gutter. If depression can be understood as an enduring state of alienation, the separation from shared reality can act as dangerous buffer. Destruction is all fireworks from a distance. “For a human being killing is the most natural thing in the world. We’re created for it,” Joe says. And for all Seligman’s insistence on her innocence over her self-proclaimed indictment of her own moral character, kill she eventually does.
Why doesn’t matter. Von Trier cares not about reasons. Or at least Joe doesn’t seem to have any beyond fate itself, narrating that she “discovered my cunt at age two” and spiraled into ruin from there. Outside of “sheer lust” there’s no discernible motive driving anything she does, from Volume I’s teenage sex competition on a train (one of the movie’s many conceits so masculine they make a case for the queerness of the director’s lens — the popular theory that he identifies as the women in his films rather than the men) to Volume II’s forty Roman ass-lashes and ruinously-wounded cunt.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Uma Thurman said of Von Trier: “The idea that people debate whether he’s a misogynist? People should debate whether people who don’t even write women are misogynists. The fact is, he’s dedicated a large portion of his artistic life to the exploration of the female psyche — good and bad, light and dark, shadows, textures.” Von Trier himself has said, “I, of course, believe that women are as bad as men.” He neglects to mention that women may well be born as bad but are then nurtured into being much worse off.
In a 1951 speech called “Keeping Calm and Composed, Let Us Awake to Our True Self,” the Japanese philosopher Shin'ichi Hisamatsu spoke about his idea of the “formless self”: the highest state of which he called “formless composure … unobstructed by mind and body.” He then quoted from the Buddhist text The Heart Sutra: “Emptiness, just as it is, is form.”
In his last three films, Lars Von Trier has attempted emptiness as emotional form. Modern life can be seen in macro as the division of human consciousness into cubicles, then the movies in the Depression Trilogy — in their exploration of alienation-ality — all perform a possible set of psychic consequences. And this last entry, in its blithe parade of bodies, feels emptiest of all.
A dualistic God demanded that we master the body; love just wants to subjugate lust; and Nymphomaniac is a circle in red ink around the pointlessness of both endeavors. But there’s something weirdly comforting about the bare honesty of its effort. In yet another interview about Antichrist (he hasn’t done any since Melancholia premiered, when he made a few spectacularly PR-unfriendly comments about Hitler,) our Danish auteur said, “No matter how ridiculous it might seem, the film, like all my work, is made from what I would call a pure heart. I am not ever trying to, as you say in England, take the piss.”
Self-induced insomnia never killed my ego, but without sleep I felt blurred, somehow softer, like my sharper edges were sloughing off. Deep in the snarl of sex I sometimes feel the opposite — a temporary expansion of self, a euphoric unfurling. As Susan Sontag wrote in her journal: “The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of my ego.” In the final scene of Volume II, Joe waxes poetic about what she has decided is her only way forward: eradicating her sexuality completely. “I will master all my stubbornness, and my strength, and my masculine aggression,” she whispers to Seligman, calling him “my one and only friend.” Minutes later, she shoots him. That the film’s framing centers around a single question — whether or not Joe is a bad human being — is in the end a red herring that fades into black, swallowed whole by the real conundrum: the pure fatalism of having flesh. In the way she describes giving birth to her child: “I didn’t feel fear; more like a kind of disgust. I could have sworn I saw him laughing.” In Von Trier’s empty visions, fate laughs at us.
"Send Her To Holloway" - The Rails (mp3)
"Panic Attack Blues" - The Rails (mp3)