ON NOT GETTING IT

by Kira Akerman

When Lars von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac opened earlier this year, it met with confusion. It was called a “joyless sexual tantrum,” (Brody, The New Yorker) and “art porn,” (Denby, The New Yorker) and led many to ask “what was the point”? 

The film unfolds as a kind of psychoanalysis, and seems to perplex viewers wanting a more conventional story or plot. Von Trier reveals Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsborough) distinctly human conflict between being fully absorbed— having an experience, or in her words, “a sensation”—and making meaning. It opens with a stranger, the cerebral and asexual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) leading the nymphomaniac, Joe, out of a dark alleyway and into his flat. He makes her tea, helps her into bed, and pulls up a chair. Seligman assumes the role of analyst; Joe, the patient. 

Nymphomaniac is still distinctly a story, “beginning when an event…radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life, arousing in that character the need to restore the balance of life.” (Robert McKee, Story) But von Trier departs from the pacing of a traditional story, instead employing conversation to transform Joe, almost unconsciously. In the first scene, Joe warns Seligman that she’s a bad human being. “I’ve never met a bad human being,” he says. “Well you have now,” she says, beginning to discover what she feels. The subject quickly changes, Joe digresses, Seligman makes incoherent references to math equations, conclusions are arrived at, and surpassed. By the end, she no longer thinks of herself as a bad person. She redescribes herself.  ”Perhaps the difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more of the sunset,” she tells Seligman. “More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.”

The form of psychoanalysis allows von Trier to discover the extent to which Joe’s character is intractable, and the limits of what she can change about herself. It chronicles her life from birth until age fifty. “I discovered my cunt when I was two,” she says. Like Freud, who gave unprecedented authority to the patient’s narrative, Von Trier gives Joe’s narrative total authority. As in psychoanalysis, her telling and retelling are woven together to form intricate patterns and connections, which change and displace themselves as the situational context undergoes constant transformations.

Nymphomaniac‘s narrative moves forward not by plot, but by the gap between what Joe feels and what she is able to say about it. Joe hesitates and digresses, and Seligman digresses in turn. “What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way,” British analyst Adam Phillips explains. “The trouble is that we use knowing in bits of our lives where it doesn’t work, or where it’s actually not the point.” Sometimes it’s useful to make meaning, and other times making meaning preempts an experience. If you have sex, for example, thinking “what does this mean?” you aren’t experiencing the sex. 

As in psychoanalysis, Nymphomaniac is not about alleviating suffering, but rather uncovering what makes life worth living. Seligman encourages Joe to talk. She describes being a child and waiting outside the surgery room for her operation. “It was as if I had to pass through an impenetrable gate all by myself,” she says. “It was as if I was completely alone in the universe, as if my whole body was filled with loneliness and tears.” Von Trier repeatedly shows Joe fingering through her leaf collection, longing for connection. She never seems to get it, and is constantly frustrated. “Frustration,” Phillips writes, “is the experience of not having an experience.” In the course of freely talking with Seligman throughout the film’s uncut 269 minutes, Joe comes to see how much aliveness she can bear, and how much she has anesthetized herself from meaningful relationships.

Conversations with Seligman center on Joe’s anxieties about her sexual appetite; psychoanalysis is about the recovery of appetite. Joe describes denying the connection of emotions, of love and sex, and being unable to avoid it. She tells Seligman she was determined to remove sex from our “love fixated society”.  She describes joining a girls club with the dictum, “We have the right to be horny,” and vowing to never sleep with the same guy twice. Though Joe falls in love with Jerome, her sexual appetite is undiminished. She is as conflicted as ever. Von Trier plays with Freud’s idea that societal regulations force us to repress certain aspects of ourselves, and that many of our inner urges are too disturbing for the conscious mind and society at large.

Joe, however, is undisturbed by her own lust until it becomes undeniably destructive. At this point, she follows the instructions of a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting, and rids her apartment of everything that reminds her of sex. She boxes and wraps everything in sight. While silly, the scene is underpinned with Joe’s fear of not feeling: death. It illustrates the conflict between what Freud terms “Thantos” (death drive) and “Eros” (life instinct); the death instinct, as described by Freud, expresses itself in self-destructive behavior. Joe finally rejects the term “sex addict.” “I am a nymphomaniac,” she cries, as if declaring her will to live. “And I love my filthy, dirty lust.” Her statement contradicts her pain.

In Vol. 2, Joe describes a turning point in her life where she lost all sensation of sexual pleasure. She tried everything she could to have an orgasm. She invited two men for a threesome, but the men are distracted by an argument with each other. Joe, removed as always, slips away. Joe seeks out K (Jamie Bell), who ties her up and whips her. Still, nothing. Joe’s predicament is possibly aphansis, a term that analyst Ernest Jones once described as loss of desire. “People,” Phllips writes, “might call it depression, but it wouldn’t be the right word for it…” it’s “a very powerful anxiety living in a world in which there’s nothing and nobody one wants.” Joe’s digressions reveal the road not taken: what she might really want.

Seligman, like any good psychoanalyst, helps Joe not feel the need to know herself (not to describe herself as a “sex addict” or a “nymphomaniac”), but instead to re-open her to experience. He tries, as Kafka once wrote, “to break the sea that’s frozen” inside of her. In a notably long, seven minute —sexless! — digression, Joe tells Seligman about an incident where her sexual appetite destroyed one of her sexual partner’s lives. His wife, Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman) comes to Joe’s apartment and asks her if they could “show the children the whoring bed.” The children peer into Joe’s bedroom, and in a deadpan tone, Mrs. H remarks, “so this is where it all happened.” The scene, like the rest of the film, resonates as a psychoanalytic session. You are fully absorbed, you lose sense of what you know, but find yourself feeling and thinking, anyway. What happened? What was the point? Joe has revealed what it might be to be married, in love, and have kids, and that is the point: to live a life is to be preoccupied with what we are missing and what we have lost.

This article was originally published in Bright Wall/ Dark Room (2014).