Imagine a film in which everything is supposed to be explicit and, yet, the most implicit thing is its intention: a story will be explicitly narrated and explicitly emptied of moral judgment. This makes Nymph()maniac (2013), probably the biggest – and most brilliant – case of a limp dick in the history of cinematography.
Sexual compulsion is not a strange theme for von Trier. It was there in Antichrist (2009) as a way to alleviate anguish, but the genre in Nymph()maniac’s narrative resembles more the 18th Century novels – from Sade to Marivaux – with a single story line, a narrator and a semi-passive interlocutor, where the focus is on sex and in the monotony in the repetition of experiences. Curiously, the sexual compulsion that eases emptiness in Antichrist does not echo in Nymph()maniac: Joe has no anguish, even though she tries to forge it inside a guilt that does not exist. Especially in Volume 2, Joe looks for limits which would bring her the guilt she believes she should feel as a result of her behavior, but not as a compulsion or a vice. Aesthetically speaking, Trier created a panoramic view of the pornographic film industry in its last 30 years, being more visual in Volume 2 than in the first one, and focusing on the dichotomy love vs. sex (which is ultimately the base of any discussion on pornography).
Seligman has as primary role to unveil to the audience (as well as to Joe) that she does not feel truly guilty or tormented by her compulsion. Opposite to Haneke’s piano teacher, Joe is unable to feel embarrassed by her behavior and tries, pathetically, to fabricate a distress that is not truly felt – something immediately pointed out by Seligman, the “blessed man”, coauthor in Joe’s story, and who refuses to be shocked or to judge the woman’s sexual postures. His analogies of fishing techniques, Fibonacci numbers and other things are, at least, curious, and mirrors Joe’s narrative structure by proving to be the marks which will guide her story.
By exposing sex in such banal manner, without a hint of embarrassment and narrating it as matter-of-factly as he does, Trier transforms sex into that what Joe questions: her doubts, her anxieties, herself. The sexual objetification is removed from her, who is then at the same time subjectified and subjectifier. In her extreme search for whatever she is looking for, sex plays a secondary role, obliterated by her (more) mundane problems and modern anxieties. Her issues, however, have little to do with sex and more to do with the eternal compulsion for breaking limits. Just one more limit. Just one more broken limit. Even in her childhood, sex is turned into a playful act void of guilt. Her virginity is lost in a mechanical, mathematical intercourse with Jerôme.
To be pornography the sex has to be meaningless, and even the meaningless sex in Nymph()maniac is full of significance. As spectators we search for the interpretation of scenes trying to make sense of what we are watching. Trier lays the answer before we can blink: it is a film about the art of narrative and the manipulation of reason by two characters who are so detached from judgment they can weigh in even their own flaws – or lack of them – in unison polyphony.
After Melancolia (2011), Trier said he was embarrassed for having directed a film which was too pretty. Nymph()maniac is ugly. Joe says she hates sentimentality because it is not real. Trier has made a false terror (Antichrist), a false sci-fi (Melancolia) and now has created a false porn that drags hordes to the movies looking for sex and leaves questioning themselves. It does not get more real than that.