In a cinematic environment in which women were depicted as fully rounded human beings with a wide range of sexual expression available to them without judgment, Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac would still be a disgusting, degrading portrait of a terrible person — it is completely unfun, unpleasant, unerotic and unenlightening. In the cinematic environment that actually exists, it's a salacious yet tedious portrayal of a woman who would appear to confirm all the nastiest stereotypes about women: that they sexually prey upon and sexually manipulate men purely for the power rush of it, and not because they actually enjoy sex at all. They just put up a façade of being sex-obsessed sluts, for reasons known only to mysterious, unknowable women. What is it with these gals, anyway? If only we could talk to women and ask them ….
I suspect that von Trier believes that Nymphomaniac is him talking to a woman (one invented in his head, but still) and asking her just why she's just such an awful person. And, sure, you could say that this is just one woman depicted here, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Stacy Martin as teen Joe and young woman Joe), and she's not intended to represent anything other than herself. Fine. But there are still huge problems with this that continue to make me believe that if von Trier loves women (as his defenders say he does), he's got strange ideas about what love means. It's certainly not about abuse, cold disregard and pretending to get close while remaining distant.
Hey! Maybe that's why the great "love" of Joe's life is supposedly her twisted relationship with the awful Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Joe's first encounter with Jerome is the beginning of her sexual odyssey, when she (around the age of 14 or so) asks him (much older) to take her virginity. Which he does, with a few quick, unromantic thrusts. Neither seems to get any pleasure out of this encounter — it's purely mechanical. She certainly experiences pain, which we can tell from the camera up her ass (figuratively) as she lurches away.
And that's the first hint that this isn't the story of a woman's sexual life, but the story of a man looking at a woman as a sexual thing. Certainly, Joe can have no memories of seeing her own ass from a short distance away. This not-Joe's perspective occurs again in her story's next chapter, when she and a girlfriend, both still underage teens, engage in a contest aboard a commuter train to see who can screw the most men on the train in the shortest time. As they sashay along the train corridors seeking likely targets, there's the camera's POV again, leering at Joe's underage ass.
Joe is telling her sexual life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). It's meant to explain why he found her beaten up and unconscious in an alley near where he lives, and why she dismisses her condition of beat-into-unconsciousness as "[her] own fault" because she's "just a bad human being." We could take Nymphomaniac as not representing von Trier's perspective but Seligman's, as if it's him having all those lustful visions of Joe being a bad, bad girl. Except that doesn't make the situation any better, and there's good reason later on, when we learn more about Seligman, for concluding that this cannot be the case anyway.
As Joe tells her story to Seligman, we can't even be sure she's telling anything close to the truth. Because, just like Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, she grabs glimpses of the things that Seligman is interested in from the stuff in his apartment — like fly-fishing — and weaves them throughout her story. Just as her life has been one long trail of manipulating men, she's attempting to manipulate Seligman for some reason that's never clear, except that it probably means we can believe at least some of her story: She manipulates because she can, because she has a vagina and an ass that men cannot resist with even the slightest invitation. (As with most examples of misogyny, men fare as badly here as women do.) Some of the tales she tells Seligman are so mendaciously absurd, they cannot be taken seriously. Her religiously ecstatic vision, as a 12-year-old, of the Whore of Babylon, accompanied by her first (spontaneous) orgasm is one. We can't trust Joe, and we can't believe her. Just like a woman?
Four hours of Nymphomaniac — four hours of copulation — and at the end of it, I don't know why I bothered. Movie characters don't have to be likable — Joe surely is not — but they should at least be fascinating. They certainly need to justify a four-hour-long movie about themselves. (Despite the Volume 1/Volume 2 crap, this is one long movie, not two distinct ones.) But for a story that's supposed to make us understand why she is the way she is, she's as big a mystery at the end as she was at the beginning. What are we meant to learn from this except "Women are weird and strange and unknowable"?
Except, you know, we aren't.