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Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and the oddity of real sex on screen

Unsimulated sex often breaks the natural flow of fiction, disrupting our enjoyment. Magnolia Pictures/ Christian Geisnaes

According to the American actor Shia LaBeouf, instead of having an audition for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, he was asked to email a photograph of his penis.

While Labeouf supposedly leapt at the opportunity to bare all, one can imagine feeling uncomfortable at such a request. The reality of sex on screen makes many people feel awkward and uncomfortable, and not merely the actors. But what is it about sex – real sex – that so unsettles in film? When employed in the name of “art”, why does unsimulated sex burst the bubble we buy into when we watch a movie? And – if we can accept real sex is a cinematic turn-off – why is it used at all?

Nymphomaniac is the third film by von Trier to include real sex. Von Trier, unlike some directors, does not have his principle actors have sex. Instead, he uses porn doubles.

Von Trier’s first use of unsimulated sex was in The Idiots (1998), which caused a stir at Cannes. The Idiots’ narrative concerns a group of friends who pretend to suffer from mental disabilities in order to disturb the general public. Indeed, at the end of the film, they challenge themselves to destroy their normal lives and fully commit to being idiots.

Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac, Volume I. Magnolia Pictures/ Christian Geisnaes

The film is part of the Dogme 95 movement, which demands a vow of chastity to prohibit any Hollywood artifice – such as fake action, lighting, staging, even a tripod.

Yet von Trier – who began the movement with fellow Danish directors Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen – broke one of the dogme rules by having porn doubles act in The Idiots’ so-called “gang-bang” scene. This complication is quite fitting, given that The Idiots questions how far simulation can go before it either falls back from reality or becomes a reality.

As with The Idiots, real sex in films often serves an anti-aesthetic purpose, where the illusion of cinema is broken – we see all the floppy and pink bits. In short, the physicality of sex can be ugly. However, real sex on screen can be a transcendent experience, all the more beautiful for being real.

One of the earliest examples of unsimulated sexual acts occurs in Jean Genet’s beautiful 1950 film, A Song of Love, which explores voyeurism, entrapment, sadomasochism, the reality in fantasy and fantasy in reality.

The film begins with a prison guard watching two male prisoners as they exchange flowers through the windows of their respective cells. This beginning could seem platonic enough, but soon we see the male prisoners masturbating. The real masturbation creates both a sense of reality and even humour as we become estranged from our bodies by the sight of other bodies.

When watching a sex scene in a Hollywood movie, the sex usually lacks any reality and we are left watching romanticised forms meld into one another. But Genet’s film captures the actual roughness and smoothness of the body, which can make us consider our own body. Indeed, seeing the male body without Hollywood illusion can even seem comic.

While we see the animality and physicality of the prisoners, as well as the narcissism of encountering one’s own body, there is still a dreamlike beauty to Genet’s film. Even though masturbation may appear a solitary, self-absorbed experience, it is often an experience about another, thinking, fantasising of someone else, and this aspect of masturbation becomes idealised in this film.

There is a strong sense of human intimacy between the prisoners, the guard and us, as the masturbation ceases to be a private act. We are rendered voyeurs, every bit as much as the guard. Had the sex been staged, the power of this intimacy would have been dampened.

Stacy Martin and Shia LaBeouf in Nymphomaniac. Magnolia Pictures/ Christian Geisnaes

Another possible example of an expression of intimacy is the infamous ending of The Brown Bunny (2003), whereby the actress Chloë Sevigny actually performs oral sex on the actor and director Vincent Gallo, an act arguably all the more intimate for being real (athough, in the narrative of the film, the oral sex is just a figment of the protagonist’s imagination).

Of course, one could also quite reasonably read the sex-act at the end of the film as a shocking publicity stunt, to make an otherwise uninteresting, low-budget film interesting. Regardless, it is not surprising that what can appear natural to some can also appear shocking to others. Indeed, real sex can feel less “real” since we are so accustomed to staged intimacy. Real sex can seem forced, even artificial, as its presence so intentionally deviates from the fictional norm.

This inclusion of the artificiality unsimulated can heighten the phantasmatic power of a film, as with Nagisa Oshima’s exquisite In the Realm of the Senses (1976), which is based on the true story of Sada Abe, a woman who erotically asphyxiated her lover and cut off his penis. The erotic love and thirst for extreme experiences between the two characters becomes so extreme that it bridges the separation of the unreal and the real – reality becoming like fiction.

Lars von Trier. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The colour cinematography is incredibly beautiful. The whole film feels at times like an oriental illusion, but the real, penetrative sex by the two actors brings an uncomfortable reality into the film.

A number of women directors have embraced this uncomfortableness to explore questions regarding gender. Catharine Breillat’s Romance (1999) is a good example of where sex becomes an existential exploration of identity.

Because of its artistic merits, it was given an R rating in Australia. A number of other films involving unsimulated sex have not been allowed classification. Indeed, Virginie Despentes’ and Coralie Trinh Thi’s transgressive and raw Baise-Moi (sometimes translated as Rape Me) (2000) (an example of an anti-aesthetic use unsimulated sex and starring pornographic actresses), was banned by Australian censors.

What is normal on many computer screens and a part of everyday life – indeed, fundamental to the continuance of life – becomes shocking when called art. Indeed, real sex often breaks the natural flow of fiction, disrupting our enjoyment of two otherwise pleasurable – or so one hopes – activities: having sex and watching a movie.

Given the power of unsimulated sex, it is little wonder that it has been used by filmmakers with an artistic pedigree to question moral norms, the nature of reality and the meaning of intimacy.

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