Lars von Trier’s film stars Charlotte Gainsborough as Joe. She is found all beaten up by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard ). He gives her shelter and she tells him about her life through eight titled parts. Between the parts we return to his room where Skarsgaard finds analogies from nature, history and philosophy, to understand her supposedly bad behaviour. Joe at different ages goes on sexual adventures. We see her attempting family life but failing in that. Jamie Bell plays K, whose sadism interacts with Joe’s masochism. Una Thurman plays an outraged cheated wife upholding bourgeois morality. Joe gets into a lesbian relationship and is cheated on and abandoned. Is Seligman a good man?
This few hours of film is Lars von Trier’s delighting in thumbing his nose at the contemporary reassertion of puritanical taboos. His entire point is to offend. There is a nicely ironic contrast between Seligman’s austere study, (all dirty wallpaper and Catholic icons) almost like a monk’s cell and the erotic electricity that comes from Joe’s narration. Jamie Bell has until now usually played wholesome characters so I’ll never look at him in the same way again. He flogs a submissive Joe but we realize that his brutality is always on Joe’s terms, she is the real controller. The worse his sadism, the more she controls it.
Van Trier looks frankly at the nature of nymphomania and simply sees its expression as a force of nature, he doesn’t set out deliberately to shock. In meeting Joe’s needs, people will be abandoned or abused and Joe refuses to be hypercritical about this. Indeed, she sees herself as martyred to her physical needs because they can ostracize her, banishing her from the decencies of acceptable behaviour. She doesn’t flinch from its consequences. All this gives Von Trier the opportunity to take some cynical aphoristic swipes against our socially sanctioned illusions. At one point Seligman uses the metaphor of fishing as an analogy with the hunt for sexual satisfaction. Von Trier’s storybook method with bookish illustrations reminds me at times of Greenway’s films, the same clinical poetic detachment. This is worthy of the 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift of “Modest Proposal”, the straight faced scholarly dissection of behaviour outside of “morality”.
Joe loves her father (Christian Slater) a great deal and she attends his death from cancer. Her father shows her different trees and what we’re to make of this lesson in schmaltzy botany I’m not quite sure. It’s as if von Trier sometimes has to soften the impact of his controversial views with nature mysticism and then relate this to sexual behaviour. Most of the men in the film are so easy to manipulate sexually that they appear to be ugly and gullible, downright clownish. Joe has no choice but laser like honesty, like a force of nature. Trier’s vision is a world of absurdist hypocrisy and self deceit. Nymphomania probably comes closest in film to Nietzsche’s insight of “will to power” insofar as it’s on these psychosexual forces that we can only thrive. Disturbing for those with hang ups, quite a trip for the open minded.