Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

I Watched Nymphomaniac Volume 1 On Demand So You Don't Have To

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Happy Friday, weekend warriors!!! If you're like me, you're looking to leave the boss-man behind and kick back with the family, a blockbuster hit, and a six-pack of Mike's Hard tonight. And what better way to relax than via the brand new live-action Animaniacs movie directed by Lars von Trier?! Animaniac purists might find the movie a bit off-canon—it really shows another side of Yakko (pretty much what I expected from Wakko, tho)—but for nostalgic children of the '80s hoping to introduce their children to the idea that sex is punishment, life is suffering, women are hollow carcasses, and Harry Truman was a weird little human, it's a CAN'T-MISS.


I am, of course, referring to the first volume of von Trier's Nymphomaniac (alternate title: Holes 2), which is newly available on Video on Demand and has absolutely nothing to do with irreverent talking dog-mice who live in a water tower. (At least, Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 doesn't. Anything's possible in Volume 2, I guess. Hello, nurse.)


Stellan Skarsgaard happens upon Charlotte Gainsbourg bruised and beaten in an alley, in the dark, in the rain. Say what you will about von Trier as a philosopher—his obsession with emotionally empty women, the artistic merit of lurid sexuality—but the dude does beautiful things with cameras. You can feel the weight in every raindrop; the air hums with kinetic energy. It's gorgeous. Then Gainsbourg says, "I discovered my cunt as a 2-year-old," and it was NOPE O'CLOCK. For me, at least.

In a framing device so heavy-handed and contrived it has to be deliberate (I suspect that Nymphomaniac is more sarcastic than von Trier is likely to get credit for), Gainsbourg sips tea in bed while telling Skarsgaard her sexual history in a series of graphic vignettes—her life as a "nymphomaniac." From her childhood as a hypersexualized, precocious Lolita (zzzzzzzzzzzzz); through adolescence when she discovers the (false) power of female beauty; through the scorched-earth sexual rampage of her 20s; Gainsbourg toils endlessly to fill the despair inside of her with sex, without ever actually figuring out what sex is.


Most of Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 is one extended, ham-handed metaphor/pun that pivots on the double-meaning of "nymph" as both a beautiful girl and an insect larva used in fishing lures. If you're really into fish and unprotected sex, this is the movie for you. Every time Gainsbourg describes some sexual trauma during which she was dead inside (spoiler: ALL OF THEM), Skarsgaard pipes up with an explanation about how getting anally raped while losing your virginity to Shia LaBeouf is totally exactly like fishing!!! Examples:

Gainsbourg: The idea was a competition. We were to go on a train trip. B said there was no need for tickets. The one who had fucked the most men when we reached the destination would win the chocolate sweets. [WHICH WERE FUCKING JORDAN ALMONDS, BY THE WAY. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I'M NOT DOING A PUBLIC TOILET BLOWJOB CONTEST FOR ANYTHING LESS THAN CADBURY MINI-EGGS.]

Skarsgaard: What you were doing when you walked down that [train] corridor—you were reading the river!

Gainsbourg: It turned out to be shockingly easy. In no time, B was ahead, 5 to 3...Look them in the eyes and smile. But then suddenly it stopped.

Skarsgaard: That's a very clear parallel to fishing in a stream! As it happens, either none of the fish are feeding, or they all feed at the same time! They go into feeding frenzy. All bite. And then, just as suddenly as it started, it stops. The fish most readily bite at the beginning of a light rain, and I think that's because they feel safe when they're swimming in a stream because they can't be seen from above. The water's surface is disturbed.


He's like the Bubba from Forest Gump of sexual fishing.

The train vignette really encapsulates my main problem with Nymphomaniac: It uses women's bodies to create a spectacle, to make a point, but I'm not sure that the point actually serves women. It's counterproductive to disseminate the idea—for reasons not thoroughly justified—that hot teenage girls are roaming around train cars searching for penises to blow. Because what happens in real life is that teenage girls are roaming around train cars searching for safe seats to sit in so they can fucking get places without creepy dudes bothering them. There might be some artistic utility in flipping that truth, in exposing the emotional barrenness of that fantasy, but is it worth it? And is a male director the best person to do that job? And are naked, sexualized female bodies the most responsible tool to use?


Von Trier didn't convince me.

But let's talk about the penis stuff! That's what we're all here for, right? Here are other things that happen in Nymphomaniac:

Gainsbourg says, "Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I've always demanded more from the sunset," so I threw my brain in a river and a fish ate it.


Shia LaBeouf masturbates with two weirdly cupped hands, like his penis is a wriggling hamster trying to escape.

There is an (unrelated) hamster metaphor that I did not understand.

Skarsgaard intones endlessly about Fibonacci sequences and how they relate to Shia LaBeouf's penis-thrusts (they're like the fly-fishing of numbers!!!).


This dialogue:

Gainsbourg: I discovered my power as a woman and used it without any concern for others. That's completely unacceptable.

Skarsgaard: Oh, little darling.

Gainsbourg: Don't you 'little darling' me.

Skarsgaard: No...What I wanted to say was if you have wings, why not fly?

Gainsbourg and her friends form some sort of secret vagina cult called the "Little Flock," and they have secret basement meetings where they chant: "MEA VULVA MEA MAXIMA VULVA."


Gainsbourg describes one member of the Little Flock, who is nicknamed the Vacuum Cleaner: "The Vacuum Cleaner possessed a special talent for floppy cocks. She had some kind of vacuum in her cunt." (HEY, LADY. YOU SHOULD GO TO THE DOCTOR.)

This dialogue:

Gainsbourg: It was about fucking and about having the right to be horny. We masturbated together, that kind of thing. But it was rebellious. We weren't allowed to have boyfriends, no fucking the same guy more than once, that kind of thing.

Skarsgaard: What did you rebel against?

Gainsbourg: Love.

Gainsbourg's character masturbates on a train while thinking about Shia LaBeouf.

There is a penis slideshow, during which Gainsbourg reminisces about "the country of the big black cocks…the country of the small yellow cocks."


Polyphony metaphors, tritone metaphors, going-for-a-walk metaphors, big cat metaphors.

Skarsgaard says, "You can't fight a lion and blow the noses of your children at the same time." TECHNICALLY TRUE.


Gainsbourg's character has sex with some hospital orderly while her dad is dying and when she gets back to his room she stands and stares at his corpse while sex liquids drip down her leg (JUST THOUGHT I'D REMIND YOU).

Shia LaBeouf licks a nipple for a long time.

Shia LaBeouf's penis slides into a vagina a bunch of times.

Gainsbourg's character begins to cry while having sex with Shia LaBeouf's penis, and then screams, "I CAN'T FEEL ANYTHING. I CAN'T FEEL ANYTHING. I CAN'T FEEL ANYTHING."



There are some insights to be mined in Nymphomaniac, for sure—about the cruelty of passivity, the chasm between sex and love, the goofiness of het machismo, how destructive it would be if female sexuality actually manifested the way it does in male fantasy, and (I hope/I suspect) the absurd hackiness of this whole conversation. Uma Thurman's single, masterful scene is a riveting and surreal exploration of what would happen if one's emotional crimes were to be made flesh and come home to roost. (Can I watch Uma's movie instead?) And, not having seen Volume 2, I don't know where it's going (though I could hazard some guesses).


But I'm not wholly certain that woman-as-sexually-compulsive-cypher is a thought experiment new enough or true enough to bother undertaking. I didn't hate it and I didn't love it and I wasn't scandalized in the ways I expected (this much explicit sex becomes mundane—by design, I expect); Nymphomaniac just feels like a slightly tedious and under-justified art film. Like American Apparel Ad: The Movie—long on the male gaze and short on female humanity; long on self-importance and short on meaning.


Image via Fast Company.