Note: The following consideration of female sexuality in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac was written by a heterosexual, cisgender, white male. The author proceeds, sensitive to his complicity in many of the issues discussed herein, and with the slight consolation that he has about as much right commenting on issues of feminism and female sexuality as Lars Von Trier has making a movie about them.
Spoilers ahead. Plenty of ’em.
In July of 2013, the website xoJane published an article that took on the whole culture of pro-sex feminism. Authored by Jillian Horowitz, the goadingly titled “Unpopular Opinion: I’m A Sex-Negative Feminist,” attacked the sort of taken-for-granted idea that sex, as long as it his healthy and undertaken under the auspices of informed consent, constitutes some inherent good.
“Sex does not happen in a vacuum immune to outside structural influences,” Horowitz wrote. “In fact, it can (and does) replicate inescapable systems of power and dominance.” For Horowitz, under the regime of patriarchy, heterosexual sex would always be oppressive. Nothing—not informed consent, not women taking ownership of their own sexuality—could break that spell.
It’d be like thinking you’re meaningfully upending capitalism by buying a Che Guevara shirt at Walmart. You cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. You cannot fuck your way to freedom. Horowitz’s thesis was more than just an unpopular opinion: It was an extreme idea.
“I prefer working with extreme ideas,” Lars Von Trier once told an interviewer. It’s an almost annoyingly coy example of a filmmaker underselling his own creative impulses, like Spielberg saying, “I find the wide-eyed innocence of childhood passably interesting,” or Michael Bay shrugging, “I sorta like money.” Von Trier’s canon is a catalog of intellectual extremity, prodding everything from disability (The Idiots) to the right to self-enablement for slaves in antebellum America (Manderlay) to the putrefaction of the human spirit and the very idea that humanity possesses some essential worthiness or grace (basically everything he’s ever done).
Von Trier’s latest, the two-volume epic Nymphomaniac, stands as the clearest articulation of his preference for extreme ideas, one that pushes past the more generalized grumbling misanthropy of his previous films to make a pointed, even radical, political statement. Very unpopular opinion: Lars Von Trier is a sex-negative feminist.
The issue of misogyny as it pertains to Lars Von Trier’s films, and Lars Von Trier, is one that’s often frustrated by an endless, augmentative feedback loop. It is, fittingly, very Trirean. Thinking about Lars Von Trier’s films makes you feel like a character in a Lars Von Trier film, playing devil’s advocate with yourself. It’s so easy to get lost in this dialectical muddle—parsing what Von Trier says versus what he means—that it’s hard to recognize when he’s expressing something clearly.
But the message of Nymphomaniac strikes me as abundantly clear, or certainly more coherent than any idea Von Trier’s tried to float in recent memory. Watching its titular sex addict, Joe (played as younger woman by newcomer Stacy Martin, then later by Charlotte Gainsbourg), laid out in various states of undress and, in places, physical and emotional distress, it’s easy to finger-point and balk, “Misogyny!” But accusing the film, or even its maker, of being misogynistic for representing the pervading culture of misogyny feels like mistaking the diagnosis with the disease.
Certainly, Nymphomaniac approaches female sexuality and sexual empowerment from a position that seems so radically left-field that it can feel stuffy and conservative—not unlike Jillian Horowitz’s own xoJane thesis on sex-negativity, which could be read as reinforcing the same attitudes of Victorian prudishness and female oppression it so pugnaciously resists. The film offers a methodical analysis of misogyny. And not just as behavior or action, but as a system that Joe cannot simply fuck her way out of, trapped as she is by the sort of structural influences that Horowitz was writing about.
Skepticism towards sexual liberation has a history about as long as sexual liberation itself. In the introduction to The History Of Sexuality (released in 1976, in the midst of the so-called sexual revolution), French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault snarkily denounced the optimism that one day, some day, sexual repression will melt away and whole cultures will be liberated, writing, “Tomorrow sex will be good again.”
As Caitlin N. Party writes in “Undoing Sex: Against Sexual Optimism,” the notion that sexuality and pleasure can liberate women “exists seamlessly with the brutal realities of gendered life,” such as rape and the domestic subjugation of women. Instead of viewing informed, consensual sex as some liberated sphere standing outside of the operations of patriarchy—or even in opposition to it—sex-negative feminists subject ideas like consent, and even the act of sex itself, to the same sort of critical rigor.
According to this line of thinking, modern hallmarks of sex-positivity such as SlutWalks, or the emergent “consent is sexy” approach to teaching young people about sexual assault, only serve to make women more amenable to the desires of men. To paraphrase Foucault, saying “yes” to sex doesn’t necessarily mean saying “no” to power. For some, sex-positivity has become a tool of patriarchy, reproducing its logic of domination.
This logic is perhaps best expressed in two portions in the film’s second volume. In the “dangerous men” segment, Joe reproduces her gendered oppression along racial lines. When she arranges a sexual liaison with an African man who does not speak English, and refers to him as “N.,” the connotation is brutally obvious. Joe’s racist biases situate her in a hierarchy of power relations, where the subjectivity of white women is privileged over that of a black man.
Nymphomaniac’s sophisticated consideration of sex and sex-negativity comes to bear most fully in what is ostensibly its most disturbing, patently misogynist segment. In her desperate search to salvage her lost orgasm, Joe becomes a willing participant in her own oppression by entering in detached sadomasochist relationship with K. (Jamie Bell). “The system,” explains Joe, “was the overriding factor with K.” When Joe gets off being bent over a leather sofa, bound and beat with a sopping wet leather riding crop, it’s because this sort of overstated sexual violence stands as the plainest expression of the kind of violence that defines her sexual and romantic history.
For Joe, this hard S&M reveals a kind of honesty, not least of all through her own willing complicity in it. She ties together her own cat o’ nine tails, so that K. may brutally lash her with it. Like any kind of sex work—while it’s not made explicitly clear if Joe is reimbursing K. for his services, the underground office environment certainly provides their encounters with the feel of work—Joe’s relationship with K. makes obvious those power dynamics that are often only implicit in other relationships.
The film’s ending—in which the seemingly kindly and sympathetic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) attempts to rape a sleeping Joe—illustrates the extent to which the cruel logic of man’s dominance over women defines Nymphomaniac’s world, which of course is our world. Seligman is perhaps the most fully realized, and cruelest, realization of what I’ll call the Good Man archetype in Von Trier’s cinema.
The GMs are Von Trier’s stand-in for whole systems of patriarchal control. Like Paul Bettany’s self-appointed town leader in Dogville, Willem Dafoe’s “well-meaning” spouse-shrink in Antichrist, and Kiefer Sutherland’s emotionally manipulative John in Melancholia (whose failings as a husband are exceeded only by his failings as an amateur astronomer), Seligman sells compassion as an elaborate, inside-out form of power. It’s not that the GMs eventually fall victim to their baser and nastier impulses. It’s that their kindly demeanor is only ever a front.
Before Seligman pounces (or sort of predatorily flops) on Joe—who has by this point renounced sex-positivity, and sex altogether, vowing to “stand up against all odds, just like a deformed tree on a hill”—he makes two final overtures at assuaging her guilt. First, he appeals to some sort of crude narrative of female empowerment, assuring her that she is “a woman demanding her right” to be happy.
Then, he attempts to twist her gendered consciousness, attempting to make her see herself as just one of the boys. “If two men walked down a train looking for women, do you think anyone would have raised an eyebrow?” he asks. “Or if a man would have lived the life you have?... [You] reacted aggressively—almost like a man, I have to say. And you fought back against a gender that had been oppressing and mutilating and killing you and billions of women.”
Seligman is like the guy in college who signs up for Women’s Studies 101 thinking it’ll be a good place to meet women. His apparent compassion is meant only to further exploit Joe’s vulnerability. And when he attempts to rape her, it’s purely an act of power and domination, his intentions as drained of desire as his drooping penis. Even kindly old Seligman, who dragged a battered, piss-wet Joe out of the alley and gave her tea and rugelach, is an active participant in the system of patriarchy and misogyny.
It’s against the overwhelming permanence of this system that Nymphomaniac’s sex-negativity takes root. I’m not sure that Von Trier has an answer for how women can escape patriarchy’s ever-grinding machinations. (Though the film also strongly suggests that female-oriented communities—like Joe and B.’s teenage sex coven—which are often intruded upon by men, may provide an alternate social formation.) What remains clear is that he holds up about as little hope for an innate goodness to sexuality as he has previously exhibited for the innate goodness of the human spirit.
When Joe hastily grabs her automatic pistol and shoots Seligman, in a dashed example of that old storytelling adage of a gun on the wall having to go off at some point, the scene unfolds in darkness. It’s like Von Trier cannot even show us the scene of Joe finally standing up against all odds and taking proactive, violent action against her oppressor. It’s as if it exists beyond representation. Von Trier knows that the structures of patriarchal control are so totalizing that he cannot even imagine something outside of them.
As the dim sunlight bleeds across a filthy brick wall toward Nymphomaniac’s startling finale—a light whose exact source is unknown, even to know-it-all Seligman—it’s easy to be reminded of that pithy chestnut of sex-negative skepticism. Maybe tomorrow, sex will be good again.