We have been talking about Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (2014). It’s been the better part of a year since the film’s release. Unless someone else has something to add, I will wrap up my analysis in this post. If I had to describe it to someone in a single line I’d say Vol. 2 unspools like one third act of contrition, another third true confession, shedding light in cracks on his persona, as well as a few embedded in the collective unconscious, and one third jabbing at the eyes of his audience.
Might as well digress at this important intersection, in regard to the most heinous images in the film. I keep ragging on about a reviewer in a local independent weekly that neglects the vital issues by simply pronouncing the movie “shit.” A more eloquent reviewer put it something like, “a singularly hateful two hours of movie watching.”Isn’t the issue how these images reverberate though culture over their lifetimes and in what ways they morph in meaning with age?
Imagine what an opportunity it is to make the first contact from your culture with a person from another completely different one. You are a doorway, their first impression, a shaper of his or her point of view. I ask myself, what kind of greeting or communication would befit such a privilege? I must confess, some self-righteous voice inside me answers, “Certainly not the ass-whipping we’re given in “Nymph()maniac Vol. 2.”
I will turn this question on the filmmaker, Lars Von Trier himself. What is your salutation to the world with these extreme scenarios in your latest release? Less educated people might not understand your illustrious cinematic ancestry, your omnivorous assimilation of art or rigorously Nordic conditioning. Did you keep in mind, when composing these frames, how the life of a one-eyed, illiterate, deaf, mute at the furthest outpost of the wired world might be changed?
Eventually the sequence of clips where your character Jo volunteers to be strapped to a sofa and savagely whipped may just take on a life of its own. That horrid little snippet could be stripped from your movie, maybe already has been, and be circulating like smack, among dark digital subcultures, touching down a million times more swiftly than our father’s girly magazines did last century.
I know, Maestro Von Trier, your heroine must be getting in touch with something very deep by asking for such punishment. We both hope you’re right-on about what kind of medicine your latest adventure in hyper-reality provides to millions of truth-starved, self-loathing, culture-shocked impressionable minds worldwide, don’t we? Because, there could be no excuse for being taken into their confidence and then poisoning them.
Over the lifetime of your movie in the digital universe, imagine all those that don’t speak any language at all, have never read a book or can’t, in any other way but literally, with eyes only, comprehend your artfully angled, eloquently sepia-toned intellectually ripe digressions? What’s the information contained in the image, stripped to its most basic? That’s your greeting to the world.
Sure, whenever the camera stops swaying and that eunuch and courtesan exchange gripes, they justify, in very mature and philosophical terms, the movie’s reason to be. Bravo! The night I went to see Vol 2, I couldn’t hear most of it because of sound problems in the theater, so all your talky second act was wasted, H. Von T. Without all that blabber it becomes a different movie altogether. Boo! Hiss!
You can’t control everything downstream of your creation, I grant you, but the image you make is your responsibility. As its maker, it has your intentions written all over it. What impression do you wish to leave behind and why, with that deranged footage of a woman’s bloody behind? I know its owner claims, in the last half of the last act, she might just be something God or nature put on earth in order to make society acknowledge its sickness, but who needs that? It’s what the nightly news is for.
The conclusion I took home is the girl can’t help it. She doesn’t know how to be normal and so she must accept herself as the other. A reluctant freak, she despises and belittles her embedded human failings because they are unfitting of the beast she identifies herself to be.
This is undoubtedly Von Trier’s most personal and confessional film to date. I find its purpose more fascinating than the film itself. We encounter his subject when she’s toying with her self-image as a misfit. She embraces being a monster but at the same time resents it.
Gifted storytellers have always helped illuminate dark passages for us. Does that make artists freaks or monsters? Does Von Trier’s provide us a harmless, relatively healthy scenario to help us as a society embrace our inner freak or does it plunge us more hopelessly into self-rejection? I trust that he’s well meaning, but again, if that is so, I wish he’d think more in terms of the antidote when glorying in the sickness. We absorb more than enough toxins from screens as it is.
As an example, a movie that portrays extreme disease as “Nymph()maniac,” but provides more of an antidote, is David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” (1980). In place of graphic social deviance, in Von Trier’s film, we pan across directly to its grotesque physical twin in Mr. Lynch’s. The scene in which the beast becomes human is played with Dickensian sentimentality yet succeeds beautifully thanks to an acting duet tour de force between Anthony Hopkins as a compassionate doctor and John Hurt as the Elephant Man John Merrick. The exchange moves me to tears each time I witness this thing that resembles a giant corn fritter, as much as a human, turns out to be an intelligent, sensitive and lovingly-reared young man.
Antonin Artaud christened a trend in drama called the “Theater of Cruelty.” He popularized it, extolled its virtues and applied them to living. He also passed extended periods in an insane asylum. From inside hospital, at least, the Theater of Cruelty looked to a tonic for society’s ills.
Artaud’s instinct, it seems, was in conditioning the audience to push back, so we don’t loose that impulse and turn into hat racks. From that standpoint, I subscribe to the concept. Keep the muscle strong. Use it or loose it. But the counter-argument is, by subjecting ourselves to increasingly sensational experiences, in the movies and other entertainments, some of the audience will grow desensitized to violence, fall increasingly indifferent to moral order and ultimately become homicidal themselves in demand for the next big thrill.
I’m with Artaud, up to a certain point. In as much as drama is capable of it, I look for all sorts of ritualistic, shamanistic, initiatory possibilities in motion pictures, or any dramatic form. It has the potential to be good medicine. I think we need more of that.
I’ve never been surrounded by mental patients, nor the international media. Very likely Artaud and Von Trier know some things I don’t. I wonder, is “Nymph()maniac” supposed to work like some kind of homeopathic on the audience? With such a harsh lashing, Von Trier could be working toward a social cure, I suppose. In breaking the limits of our tolerance, he presumes to help us regurgitate something from the depths of the collective soul, shoving a finger down our throat, through our eyes, as it were. As a social study, I hope it works. At Vol 2’s climax, I chose to close mine.
In Vol 2, Jo offers a hypothesis poised as the existential crux of story and I paraphrase: “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset; more spectacular colors when the sun hits the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.” When Jo confesses this, is this not the filmmaker here ruing his obsession with misanthropy?
Through his subject’s mouth, Von Trier bemoans having grown desensitized. A filmmaker is the archetypal magician, enchanter, seducer and creator of artificial realities. Some grow so accustomed to the hyper-reality, real life pales in comparison. An artist can become so wrapped up in artifice he gets addicted. We encourage this. The audience eats it up and pushes him ever further out in to space to find more. Call this, the filmmaker’s dilemma. We laugh about it again and again while watching that famous farce “8 ½.” by Fellini. In his hands, the impasse manages to warm the heart. In Lars Von Triers’ it breaks the skin.
Von Trier has courted controversy with his public personality while cultivating an illustrious reputation with his films. Let’s hope he will be remembered more for his cinematic contributions, than for being that naughty fool in the news.