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Nymphomaniac’s Crash Course in Sexuality Studies

It was a thought that only occurred to me the morning after.

What would have happened if Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac was actually sexy?

What would have happened had I, and my too-handsome friend sitting next to me, experienced happily engorged genitals for four hours? What would we have spoken about during intermission? Chatted about awkwardly afterwards?

The thought, of course, hadn’t transpired earlier because the film was never going to get either of us particularly horny. The marketing was the giveaway. With images more commonly associated with websites like - a kind of hip, genital-less porn where the focus is on faces at orgasm - Nymphomaniac’s posters oozed sexiness.

Not a guarantee, true, but generally, when sex is the selling point, an anticlimax is inevitable. It’s just too easy a lure, and far too difficult to execute.

That, and a running time of four bloody hours. Cinema Nova in Melbourne is showing Nymphomaniac Vol 1 and 2 in an abridged marathon session. I’m not entirely sure what levels of depravity I’d need to keep me aroused for four hours, but Nymphomaniac certainly wasn’t offering it.

Nymphomaniac - now showing.

Unsexy perhaps - and indeed there’s a piece to be written about how to sully the bump ‘n’ grind on screen - but the film wasn’t without its gifts.

Fifteen minutes in - after a ponderous, Madonna-esque musing on rain and a rambling metaphor centred on fly-fishing - the too-handsome man on my right whispered, “One episode of Game of Thrones.” Twenty minutes later, “Two episodes of Game of Thrones.” As the final credits rolled, apparently my debt was watching four series of Game of Thrones and all three Transformers films.

This scene isn’t even in the film.

Takeaway 1. Media Math. Not that I’m having a bar of it of course, but I did briefly get fascinated by the idea of calculating pleasure and pain in film-going. About creating a spreadsheet to tally his suffering, my distraction at his suffering, and quantifying the joy he might reap from forcing me to endure awful boxsets against my will. (And whether that’s disturbing enough to be interesting).

Takeaway 2. A crash course in sexuality studies.

Needless to say, we only see two of these characters orgasming in the film.

Nymphomaniac’s plot – a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) divulges her sexual history to a creepy older man (Stellan Skarsgård) who found her injured on his street - functions merely as a backdrop for a series of heavy-handed seminars on sexuality.

From the slut/stud double standard, the “real” of sex addiction, the ethics of sadomasochism, the complexity of consent, male vs female sex motivations, about whether love inhibits orgasm… it was as though all von Trier was missing was the lectern.

As someone who thinks and writes about these topics nearly constantly, very little felt particularly new for me. Something that felt nice at least, was Nymphomaniac’s handling of childhood sexuality.

Early in and there’s a scene of two pre-pubescent girls experiencing the joys of water lapping at their bare genitals.

Our culture tends to want to have laborious conversations about girls gone or wild, about children being sexualised. There’s always something to blame and always more legislation to be written.

It’s not an unprecedented presentation, of course. House. American Horror Story. Mad Men. The Big Bang Theory. They’ve each attempted to tackle the topic before. But in Nymphomaniac childhood masturbation is not merely spoken but shown. And it’s sweet and innocent and I dare say, a fairly accurate portrayal of girls’ first forays into the pleasures of their own bodies.

Go along if you’ve not yet experienced sex in a lecture theatre. Go along for weird analogies, strange accents and full frontal nudity. Go along for great music. Go along if you appreciated the thorough staginess of von Trier’s Dogville.

Just don’t go for the stimulation. You’ve got porn for that.

“Hey Joe” - Charlotte Gainsbourg (2013) from the Nymphomaniac soundtrack.

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