There is an extraordinary scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) in which Bibi Anderson describes to her mute patient Liv Ullmann a group-sex experience she once had on a beach. As Bergman meticulously crafts an alternation of close-ups and medium shots between the actresses, we are drawn into the arousing memory by the power of narration and the growing affective intensity of the two faces.
It stands, in context, as perhaps the most erotic scene in cinema history, with not a single flashback used.
Jean-Luc Godard was to pillory the scene a year later in his scabrous satire Weekend (1967), by having his anti-heroine Corrine disaffectedly narrate what appears to be a first-person account of an orgy (but is really an anecdote cribbed out of Bataille’s Story of the Eye) to her equally uninterested boyfriend. She is poorly lit in her underwear, and once again, we see nothing in flashback.
Godard’s point was that the representation of sexuality, in whatever audio-visual form, is unavailable for any art but satire, having already been co-opted by the enemy. Capitalism isn’t threatened by carnal desire; it feeds on it.
So even Bergman’s exquisite way round the problem of filming “sex”, by showing it being described whilst maintaining a chaste distance at the level of the image, was already bankrupt in Godard’s estimation.
This had not always been the case, of course. The great generation of Surrealists, not least Luis Buñuel and his early film collaborator Salvador Dali, demonstrated the explosive power of sexual material to épater la bourgeoisie and unleash aesthetic energy. Titillation had a political dimension in a context of generalised repression and sublimation.
But in the post-1960s world, as Godard and Herbert Marcuse were at pains to teach us, repressive desublimation is the rule. Rather than destabilising the market, administered sexuality functions precisely as an instrument of depoliticisation and consumer control.
The last 50 years should be seen as a gradual perfection of this technique: Miley Cyrus swinging naked on a wrecking ball for a song promotion is its banal crystallisation.
Pornography has been normalised. There is nothing once locked behind walls of taboo that you can’t now watch over breakfast and that your kids aren’t streaming in their bedrooms. The birds and the bees? They’re the real mysteries today. Cocks and cunts, not so much.
What is a film artist to do with this problem?
Consider that for years, Hollywood operated according to the voluntary regulations of the Hays Code, meaning that anything approaching “explicit” sexual content was barred from view. Filmmakers developed elaborate ways around these rules, using the power of suggestion and metaphor instead of “showing it”. The results were, if anything, far more erotic than pornography.
And think of the case of Iran today where, due to state censorship, all sexual representation is banned outright. Despite, or more likely because of, this the simmering sexual tensions in Iranian cinema make the all-too explicit West look not just decadent but supremely unimaginative.
Whether finding ways around it, or abiding by it, repression seems to help the libidinal apparatus by presenting it with a rigid structure of laws. Sexuality without the law is no sexuality worth having; it’s a marketing mechanism.
For the last decade or so, some filmmakers have been breaching what had long stood as an inviolable boundary-line separating narrative cinema proper from pornography. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek once put it, traditionally in porn, you see everything, but the price you pay for it is narrative stupidity; while in mainstream cinema, you get the narrative complexity, but you will never see a genital in anger.
Directors Catherine Breillat, Michael Winterbottom, Gaspar Noé, Vincent Gallo and others pioneered the use of “unsimulated sex” in their art-house movies, with results that are mixed, to say the least. It is not clear that this radical “desublimation” of narrative cinema serves a progressive or liberatory function, or participates in the general saturation of commercial signs by sexuality.
Which brings us to Lars von Trier.
Von Trier was the catalyst for the use of unsimulated sex in contemporary cinema, thanks to his 1998 film, The Idiots, whose disturbing climactic sequence involves an orgiastic rape with actual penetrative sex.
The Idiots belonged to a serious initiative in Scandinavian (but also global) cinema, to restore to filmmaking a sense of limitation and proportion. Dogme was a movement dedicated to rules and restrictions, including a Vow of Chastity that banned nondiegetic music and firearms – but it said nothing about sex. And von Trier has proven especially concerned with “showing it” to a degree unmatched by anybody else.
His latest, Nymphomaniac, is a kind of summation and apotheosis of his career-long position on the matter. Indeed, it is a kind of manifesto, and should be understood as such.
The perfectly artificial situation he has chosen for his five-and-a-half-hour endurance test recalls Bergman’s great scene from Persona: a woman recounts her sexual experiences to a willing and enthralled listener. But the stakes are raised to allegorical extremes, for the woman is a raving nymphomaniac who stops at nothing in her pursuit of genital stimulation, while her interlocutor is a sterile 60-year-old virgin male intellectual.
And von Trier has no interest in the aesthetic delicacies of subordinating the visual to the verbal. In this film, there is no gap between the said and the seen: as soon as it departs Charlotte Gainsbourg’s or Stellan Skarsgård’s lips, it becomes an image. Nymphomaniac, for all it is a contrived allegory, is perhaps the most literal film ever made.
This makes for an intriguing cinematic experience. In the film’s first part (in the adulterated version circulating in British and Australian cinemas), what we are treated to is a sometimes exasperating, sometimes amusing exercise in transcoding: since the two subjects share no common code (she knows nothing about literature or art, he knows nothing about sex), they have to contrive mediatory languages in order for her to tell her story.
So, fly fishing, Fibonacci numbers, Bach’s polyphonic organ music, and Jewish pastries are put into service as metaphors and similes in their verbal exchanges. For us, these exchanges are translated into images. And so, in some real sense, what we watch is not so much “about sex” as it is about the power of metaphor in the cinema.
Yes, there is plenty of unsimulated sex, but like the various comparisons and digressions that Skarsgård’s character Seligman comes up with to make sense of it, it is inherently uninteresting and pointless. What really matters in this first part is the power of poetic thinking itself, which can only consider one order of experience in the terms of another.
Gainsbourg’s character Joe tells Seligman repeatedly about her father’s transfigurative metaphor for the bare deciduous branches of winter as the “souls” of their trees. In that spirit, Part One is full of the dialectical desire to make sex interesting, readable, and profound, on the basis of its participation in a connected and human universe of signs.
The highpoint of this tendency comes in Chapter 5, where Bach’s “three voices” in his contrapuntal prelude The Little Organ School are transposed into the masculine tangle of Joe’s most satisfying sexual combination. It is a joyous affirmation of cinema’s perverse ability to fuse disparate orders of experience into knots of audiovisual rhetoric.
But Lars von Trier is not one to dwell long in the region of joyous affirmation. Part Two thus works to dismantle everything the first part had achieved in making screen sex interesting again. Because, for von Trier, despite his undying fascination with it, sexual experience is not a domain of truth.
Consider the role sex plays in his oeuvre.
For Bess in Breaking the Waves, sex is the shattering trauma that interposes between her love for Jan and his newly disabled state, sending her to oblivion. In The Idiots, it is the fatal fly in the “radical” ointment: a nightmare residue of patriarchy in the commune. Dogville’s Grace is subjected to such an overflow of the small town’s pent-up sexual violence that her response is the only just one: total annihilation of the community.
By the moment of Antichrist, his masterpiece, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character is forced to accept the ultimate conclusion, snipping off her own clitoris and pulverising her husband’s testicles with a woodblock. “There is no sexual relation”, as Jacques Lacan once put it. Indeed, for von Trier, there most certainly is not.
So Part Two of Nymphomaniac is a kind of companion-piece to Antichrist. Its premise is that Joe’s genitals have been so badly damaged through abuse and overuse that they are more of a seeping wound than an organ of pleasure. She seeks more and more extreme experiences, at greater and greater cost, but the magic is gone.
Joe has mistaken herself for a cultural radical, much like Gaspar Noé and Catherine Breillat. “The bourgeoisie doesn’t know what to do with me”, she says, clearly not noticing that that class has been replaced by a tribe of playboy billionaires and pleasure-seeking managers rather like herself (and Michael Fassbender’s character in Shame). The film knows better, and returns her to the conventional dimension of narrative cinema where she came from: there’s a gun, and a girl, just like Godard said there should be.
For the film, as for Joe, all the early delight taken in metaphor and simile has evaporated. The very cinematic language has collapsed on itself. We are stranded in a melancholic terminus of experience, where even the long-awaited epiphany (the discovery of Joe’s soul-tree) feels contrived and empty.
The real nymphomanic here is, of course, contemporary Western cinema itself.
Von Trier’s ambition is to teach us, through a resolute over-exposure of the material, that the cinematic representation of sex is, in itself, as puerile and narcissistic and psychologically scarring as Joe’s story makes it feel. The film is reaching for an exit velocity from repressive desublimation by generating momentum in Joe’s circulations around the void that sheer appetite commits her to.
And it is teaching us, in the meantime, tongue deeply implanted in cheek, that there is far more cinematic pleasure to be had in observing an ash-tree leaf or the whip of a fly-fisher’s line than in the spectacle of another male organ driving into a female one. Only, we don’t buy tickets for four hours of that.