2014 has been a year wrought with films on the structure of cinema. The Lego Movie embarked to restate the purpose of the Hero’s Journey. The Wind Rises dealt with a great creator’s “Ten years in the sun” and the purpose of creating “art”. The Grand Budapest Hotel was a statement from its director, Wes Anderson, on the individuality of an artist and in turn the way that nobody really CAN be an individual without an artistic idol or leader. And now a new challenger enters the ring with Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 which creates what, in my opinion, are the most interesting and dark observations out of all four of these films. While these other films focus on the structure of cinema, Nymphomaniac discusses the way that the viewer interacts with narrative structure and questions the sensation that people receive from film.
The structure of Nymphomaniac is a story within a story as Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character Joe retells the story of her life after being found beaten and unconscious in an alley. Her savior, a man later to be known as Seligman, begins to ask her about her life and this is where the “plot” of the movie begins. The moment this story starts the viewer of the film becomes the viewer of another story, a story that could be distorted by both Seligman or Joe but the reality of it remains unknown. Seligman even goes so far as to question what seems to be obscene coincidence in Joe’s retelling of her life but it is very swiftly passed over and accepted. This questioning from Seligman similar to what is the most emphasized and drawn out metaphor of the film.
The first chapter of Nymphomaniac not only begin the story of Young Joe but also create a metaphorical reference for the remainder of the film and in many ways outline part of the purpose of the film as a whole. As Joe recounts the beginning of her youthful exploration of her sexuality, Seligman continually interrupts to point out similarities between her sexual encounters and the technique of fly fishing. Though relatively simple, this metaphor serves a purpose higher than just to elaborate on Joe’s sex life. It is at this point that Seligman’s purpose becomes clear. He is the nurturer of a grand story, the guiding hand in the pathway of the film. The audience is not watching Joe’s story, they are watching Seligman’s story or at least Seligman’s interpretation of Joe’s story. In this way, Seligman is the mirror through which the audience is reflected. Seligman provides metaphors to empathize Joe’s pain to his own life, just as a viewer of a film does towards any character. Through THIS lens Nymphomaniac becomes a really interesting study on interaction and experience. Seligman’s fishing metaphor DOESN’T MATTER within the scope of the film, however it is hugely important to emphasize the point that the audience of the story will associate themselves within that story. Joe sees this in Seligman but still understands that he will never truly experience her life and even remarks to Seligman multiple times throughout the film that he “won’t understand”. As the movie progresses Young Joe’s excursions become more of a focus than Seligman’s apartment and guidance, at least until the last chapter of the film.
The final chapter of Vol. 1 kind of states the obvious. “I can’t feel anything” cries Young Joe. The question is whether or not this is a surprise or is it just a lapse in Young Joe’s denial. This statement, the admittance to a lack of sensation, is something that could only be described in such vivid detail through the erotic. Von Trier’s purpose is not to arouse, but rather to slap the viewer in the face and wake them up. The topic of the film is thus viewed in two extremes: those who despise the thought of what they perceive it to be and those who desire what they perceive it to be. Ultimately the film satisfies neither as it is not the erotic shitshow that people expected but rather a kind of dark comedy that uses sexuality as a tactical device. Nymphomaniac is about feelings, but more importantly the lack of feelings. It is about the way that people wander into a theater and desire to feel and to experience but at some point that becomes dull and they must find other sources of experience. Von Trier questions these boundaries: At what point did we become desensitized to the sex in this movie? At what point did we get desensitized to the meaning of this movie? At what point did we become desensitized to those around us, unable to feel or connect with anyone but ourselves? As Joe states, “You won’t understand” and the Seligman’s in the world probably won’t. The film challenges the way we feel more than it challenges the way we think. The real question is if it is bad to be Seligman or if it is ok to guide and connect ourselves, perpetuating an existence subservient to the stories of others.