‘Nymphomaniac’ investigates female sexuality

via+Magnolia+Pictures

via Magnolia Pictures

Alex Greenberger, Arts Editor

From its title, Lars von Trier’s four-hour, two-volume character study “Nymphomaniac” does not exactly sound like a feminist gem. It reads more like the title of a ’70s porn film, and that is not entirely an accident. The film, which focuses on a sex addict’s life, features eyefuls of unsimulated sex, the kind that rarely graces movie theaters.

But by the film’s end, it becomes clear that “Nymphomaniac’s” protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), regrets nothing, even if she claims to hate herself. She is proud of her many imperfections, and she is proud of her body. More than anything else, she is proud to be a woman. Though early on “Nymphomaniac” includes lines like, “I discovered my cunt at age two,” the film is an empowering look at female sexuality, and how women can use it to reel in and repel the men around them.

Sexuality, the controversial Danish director argues, is how people survive. Women simply understand and use it with purpose, unlike men. In the film’s finest sequence, three of Joe’s most important sexual affairs are shown at the same time — love, lust and something in between are juxtaposed. In none of the cases do the men realize what Joe is doing, but in all cases, the audience knows that she is in control.

Many critics have been quick to point out what seemed like misogyny in von Trier’s past films, in which women are usually hurt — sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, always brutally — by the men around them. “Nymphomaniac” might just be the one to prove the critics wrong. Its occasional forays into sexism are ironic, and that may be what von Trier was doing in the past. Perhaps the women were in control all along.

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2014 Arts Issue. Email Alex Greenberger at [email protected]