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A comment on Nymphomaniac with reference to Steve McQueen's Shame


The Telegraph’s Jenna McCartney writes that Nymphomaniac, like Steve McQueen’s Shame, is not a ‘story of sex, but a fable of addiction’ but I’d like to argue that Nymphomaniac’s a far more intelligent dissertation on the subject than McQueen’s offering, pushing as it does, the two main characters, Joe {Charlotte Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin} and Seligman {Stellan Skarsgård} to reach various epiphanies and understandings about themselves. Whereas Shame seems like an impressionistic painting in comparison, Nymphomaniac is, as we are warned by Joe at the beginning of the 2 Volumes, ‘a moral story’, with, as McCartney rightly concludes, the pornography being merely ‘on the skin’- a signifier only to the deeper issues the film duly explores.
Many critics are unhappy with Lars von Trier’s efforts, Mark Kermode calling it ‘a cacophony of discordant excess’ but many have also passed over what seems to be the film’s real transgressive nature- not the sex but von Trier’s brutally honest and consistently compassionate exploration of dark and forbidden themes such as pedophilia [I was aware of a collective take in of breath in the audience I was sitting in at that scene], self harm, masochism and polymorphic perversion etc. The emphasis on self-acceptance, desire for change and spiritual development is an exercise in pedagogy. Everyone’s making much of the film’s lack of sense of place, inconsistent accents and melodramatic ending {essential if Joe is to continue her quest}. There are also complaints about what is seen as von Trier’s pseudo intellectualism with his references to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Bach and Fibonacci etc and a soundtrack where Shostakovich and Rammstein battle it out for space, but these criticisms seem merely reductive and a convenient way of avoiding what Lars von Trier, with his rude disregard for cinematic convention, is trying to do.
Sure this is, on the surface, a portrait of a woman exploring her sexuality and who is at times, a person held prisoner to it - but this is only a glib explanation. It’s real message seems to be about transgression- moral transgression and to what extent and personal cost it is necessary, and in being so, pushes boundaries that other directors, Steve McQueen included, daren’t go near. Joe is a character who advocates agency, whose actions bring others to personal crises, who practices expression rather than repression {somewhere in Vol 2 Joe explains to Seligman that if a word is prohibited then we are further removed from a democratic state {sure von Trier is referring to that incident back in Cannes but there is a narrative meaning also}} and who, rather than wallowing in self pity and taking a masochistic pleasure in the loneliness of her life {after all she talks about walking around waiting for permission to die}, tries to do something about it- she perhaps sees behind her fantasies to the real desires behind. Because of this Nymphomaniac is a hugely positive and life affirming film {for Joe}, even if it includes a scene {a reworking of the beginning of Anti-Christ} where Joe chooses to put her own needs above that of her child, with nearly fatal consequences.
Because Shame is the most recent and well-known Western film to tackle sex addiction before Nymphomaniac, there are the inevitable comparisons. But the two directors sit on different ends of the spectrum- McQueen’s approach remains at a more visceral level, not wanting to probe into the depths of his characters’ minds, whilst von Trier constantly imbues his mise en scene and protagonists with irony and self-reflection. References to the Great Whore of Babylon and spontaneous orgasm, The Little Organ School and the like are mere Twitter Handles to deeper meanings, most of which von Trier leaves to the audience to work out.
Shortly after seeing the Vol1 & Vol2 on Saturday, I wrote on Twitter that this is what cinema is for- where characters get to analyze and debate about themselves and their experiences and challenge the social norms that give rise to most of people’s daily conformity. I still stand by this, even after a couple of day’s reflection.. we need more filmmakers like von Trier and more films like this now more than ever.

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