After a series of orgasmic promotional posters Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac hit UK cinemas on Saturday 22nd February. And unsurprisingly, everyone is talking about it. A four hour double feature of explicit sex in mainstream cinemas with the title Nymphomaniac self-consciously tries to shock.
Writing on the art of strip-tease in 1973, Roland Barthes describes the fantasy driving this form as what he calls the “schoolboy’s dream”. Finally, after all this time, we get to see what’s not allowed, the last, most intimate, most private part of all. And because seeing is knowing, of course, this is not just a fantasy of vision. This dream is above all a longing for access to an order of knowledge that is deemed all the more significant for being kept hidden.
And in the half-century since Barthes, the cultural weight of this ages-old association of visibility and knowledge has only increased. As social media redefines the boundaries between public and private, “transparency” becomes our abiding demand: immediately suspicious, anything hidden excites our desire for exposure. We are driven by this fantasy of definitive knowledge.
As Barthes’ example indicates, it is around sex that this tension between concealment and revelation plays out most dramatically. The long history of taboo and transgression surrounding the presentation of the erotic body makes it virtually impossible to avoid this framework when it comes to representations of sexual activity. Indeed, explicit representations have always justified their frankness as a kind of liberation, challenging repressive regimes of concealment in the name of a healthy – or just more authentic – openness.
And let’s be honest: this has often been true. The censorship of certain images always goes hand in hand with the repression of certain bodies, their desires and practices. The sexually explicit arthouse films which have been a striking feature of European cinema since the mid-1990s have frequently laid claim to this kind of taboo-busting honesty. From the grainy realism of Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, to Catherine Breillat’s confrontation of the prohibitions surrounding representation of the female body, the promise is that showing what has never before been shown (at least, not in this context) will bring us to some sort of truth.
But for all its accuracy in some cases, this notion of transgressive revelation as inherently liberating is far from straightforward. As Michel Foucault pointed out, characterising our predecessors (or our neighbours) as repressed and/or repressive – however true this might be – largely serves the purpose of making us feel good about ourselves. Congratulating ourselves on our healthily liberal approach to formerly tabooed material, we easily forget how those we write off as irredeemably uptight actually both enforced and outmanoeuvred these same taboos.
But perhaps, more importantly, this stance also enables us to forget about the forms of repression we continue to tolerate, if not indulge. “Transgression” can all too easily become a self-serving fantasy of breaking through to some deep truth, when in reality, the Emperor is already naked: truth is no more hidden in the depths than exhibited on the surface. What do we discover behind the curtain? Not the Wizard of Oz, just an old man with a load of rickety machinery.
The habitual figure of the elusive, enigmatic, hidden truth is, of course, the female body. Delighting in our liberation from the old taboos, are we perhaps merely repeating Barthes’ schoolboy’s dream, rehearsing varieties of strip-tease in which we get closer to the knowledge we seek by denuding, exposing, or indeed taking apart women’s bodies, over and over again? How are our obsession with transparency and the cinema’s fetishistic cutting-up of the female form connected to one another?
It is true that this connection is not universal: recent mainstream sexually explicit films, such as Blue Is The Warmest Colour and Stranger By The Lake, have begun to feature same-sex encounters, for example, in which this strictly gendered economy of concealment and revelation is a good deal less insistent.
But, from Hollywood to Lars von Trier, most of the straight mainstream still likes to imagine that the way to the truth is through the intimate manipulation of a woman’s body.
As a corrective to this fantasy of invasion, few works can rival Gunvor Nelson’s Take Off, a short film from 1972 which can be viewed at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. A stripper does her thing, disrobing seductively before a fascinated camera – only she fails to stop where she should, peeling off eyelashes, wig, and eventually (thanks to some nifty trick photography) body parts one by one, until only her truncated torso is left. Having given us exactly what we want (having taken everything off), the torso in question proceeds to take off, spinning away into space in a witty escape from the clutches of our tawdry fantasy. “You want the truth?”, it asks: “Then find a new way to look.”
Watching Nymphomaniac, this might be something worth pondering. Just what truth do its explicit depictions claim to convey? And just how new is this way of looking?