The Philosopher’s POV: Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac 1 and 2

February 14, 2014 No Comments


Professor Bruce Russell is a prolific writer on the philosophical nature of film.  His interests in epistemology, ethics and the problem of evil are central to the work he does as a philosopher.  His newest subject is Lars Von Trier’s controversial two part saga:  Nymphomania (part one and two).  The films have been applauded and reviled, but never ignored.  Dr. Russell’s thoughtful comments provide an interesting POV into one of cinema’s most enigmatic minds.

Nymphomaniac I & II: Darkness At Both Ends

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac I & II are about the life of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who tells her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), an older man who takes her in after finding her bloody and beaten in an alley near his home. We see her life through flashbacks as she discloses important events in it to Seligman. Most have something to do with sex because Joe is a nymphomaniac. When she was about six, she and her friend would put water on the bathroom floor and slide along on their stomachs for stimulation. At 12 she had what she calls a spontaneous orgasm on a school trip in the hills. When she was 15, she gave up her virginity to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), who played a major, though not continuous, part in her life from that point on. At about 17, she and her friend B had a competition on a train to see who could have sex with the most men before they reached their destination. After that she slept with thousands of men, often more than one a night. Then she tells Seligman how all of a sudden, within seconds, she lost all sexual sensation; “my cunt simply went numb,” she says. That led her to desperate attempts to regain her sexuality. It involved having sex with men outside of her relationship with Jerome, whose child she bore, and seeking out a professional sadist, K, who hit her hard, sometimes in the face but most often lashing her buttocks with a riding crop till they bled. Her obsession with K and the sadomasochism caused her to neglect her son, Marcel. Jerome then leaves her and takes Marcel with him. He later places Marcel in a foster home, and Joe never sees him again (though she does contribute, anonymously, a thousand pounds a month to his account). Joe gets a job in an office, but she is not liked by the other women who learn that she has sex with men every night and fear that she will seduce their men. After briefly going to group therapy at the insistence of her boss, she quits therapy and her job and then gets a new job as a debt collector. That job sometimes involves beating men on their buttocks, as K had beaten her, in order to get them to pay their debts. Her boss there is L (Willem Dafoe), and he tells Joe that she needs to get a successor. He knows of a young 15-year-old girl whose father is in prison and whose mother died of an overdose. He suggests that Joe endear herself to the girl and groom her to be her successor. She does just that, and when the girl she calls P becomes an adult, she moves in with Joe. They have sex together, and P begins to take on more responsibility as a debt collector herself.

            Why is Joe addicted to sex? She says, “I don’t know where we get our sexuality from, or where our tendencies of this kind come from. Probably a perversion created in our childhood that never manifested itself before.” Seligman gives what he says is Freud’s opposite explanation: that in childhood everything is sexuality and all kinds of sexual perversion exist; we use our childhood to diminish or remove some of them. There are no particular clues about Joe’s childhood that help us understand her addiction to sex. She had a loving relationship with her father, though her mother was often angry and called a “cold bitch” by Joe. Her nymphomania is a mystery, though her rebellious, anti-social, anti-bourgeoisie attitude can explain some of it. When young, she and her friend B did not want to have anything to do with romantic love and the sort of sex that accompanies it. But then B fell in love with a man and whispers in Joe’s ear that what makes sex best is love.

            Joe has a low opinion of herself. She calls her actions sinful, and there is lots of evidence that she did many bad and wrongful things. To win the competition on the train, she seduced a man and gave oral sex to him even though she knew that he was on the way to a rendevous with his wife where they were to have sex so she could get pregnant. During the period when she was sleeping with thousands of men, she let Mr. H move in with her even though she did not love him. That ruined his marriage and broke up his family that included three young sons. Because she was so obsessed with K and sadomasochism, she left her child Marcel home alone, and he wandered dangerously onto the balcony of their apartment. She manipulated the young girl, P, in order to have a successor in the debt collection business. Finally, she pointed a gun at Jerome and pulled the trigger twice, though the gun did not go off. At one point she says to Seligman, “It is said to be difficult to take someone’s life, but I would have thought it’s more difficult not to. For every human being, killing is the most natural thing in the world. We’re created for it.”  And, in the end, she does kill someone.Seligman tells Joe that he is the best judge of whether she is a bad human being or not because, being  a virgin and asexual, he does not “look at you through the glasses colored by sexuality or sexual experience.” He thinks he can be impartial. But what he says to Joe is not an exoneration but, at best, an explanation and, perhaps, a partial excuse. He says that she was demanding her rights as a human being and as a woman, but what rights were those? The right to express your inner most self, to act on your core desires? But there is a right to do that only if doing so does not harm others, and Joe does harms others. He compares her acts and life to that of a man who might have done the same sort of things or lived a life like Joe’s. He says that such a man would not be blamed, that his misdeeds would have been shrugged off, and that he would not have born the burden of guilt that Joe has. But even if true, this just means that society is hypocritical, not that what Joe did was right or even excusable. Even if Joe was led to do many of the awful things she did by feelings of guilt, that does not absolve her of blame or make what she did right. After Seligman gives his defense of Joe she says that she is predisposed to knock holes in his argument but is too tired to do it. As a defense, his argument is flawed though it has more merit as an explanation of why Joe did what she did.

            Is there hope for Joe? Near the end of the movie she says to Seligman,

Let me just say that telling my story as you insisted, or permitted, has put me at ease. At this moment, my addiction is very clear to me. I’ve come to a decision. Even though only one in a million, as my dubious therapist said, succeed in mentally, bodily, and in her heart ridding herself of her sexuality, this is now my goal… It’s the only way I can live it. I will start up, against all odds, and just like a deformed tree on a hill, I will master all of my stubbornness, my strength, my masculine aggression. But most of all, I want to say thanks to my new, and maybe first friend. Thank you so much, for perhaps it’s something when all is said and done.

            When she left group therapy after only three weeks and five days, she distanced herself from the other sexual addicts and embraced her nymphomania. She says to them,

Dear everyone, don’t think it’s been easy, but I understand now that we’re not and never will be alike. I’m not like you, who fucks to be validated and might just as well give up putting cocks inside of you. And I’m not like you. All you want is to be filled up and whether it’s by a man or by tons of disgusting slop makes no difference. [It is ironic and revealing that when Joe is lying flat on her back in the alley after being brutally beaten she says, “Fill all my holes, please.”] And I’m definitely not like you. That empathy you claim is a lie because all you are is society’s morality police whose duty is to erase my obscenity from the surface of the earth so that the Bourgeoisie won’t feel sick. I’m not like you. I am a nymphomaniac, and I love myself for being one. But, above all, I love my cunt and my filthy, dirty lust.

            Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher at Yale, is famous for his distinction between willing and unwilling addicts. Willing and unwilling addicts are both addicted to something, in Joe’s case it’s sex. However, the willing addict wants to want what she is addicted to, and the unwilling addict also wants the thing she is addicted to but wants not to want it. At the time of the group meeting, Joe was a willing sex addict. At the end of the film, she is an unwilling addict because she wants not to want sex. Her “dubious therapist” told her that only one in a million is able to rid herself of her sexuality, and Joe herself has called sexuality the strongest force in human beings. In her work as a debt collector Joe met a man who desired sex with boys but who had never acted on that desire his entire life. She calls him a sexual outcast like her, and sees him as someone who has born the same sort of cross as she has. Joe admires him for his self-control, but she tells Seligman that ninety-five percent of pedophiles never act on their desires. Maybe the odds are not so overwhelmingly stacked against Joe’s overcoming her sexual addiction, though it may be harder for a person to give up an addiction than never to have acquired it.

            But don’t get your hopes up! Nymphomaniac I  begins with a black screen and no sound, and Nymphomaniac II ends with a black screen and no sound (at least before the credits roll). Joe says that killing is the easiest thing in the world and that we are created for it. Lars von Trier’s view of life is dark. There are too many desires that we have inherited from our ancestors to be optimistic: sex, jealousy, revenge, rage. Von Trier would side with Shakespeare: life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but Shakespeare is too optimistic for him. Von Trier’s Shakespeare would have said:  life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying prurience and evil.


The Philosopher's POV

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