Nymphomaniac’s Message for the Arab Spring
As an Arab you’re probably expecting me to lay into Nymphomaniac. It’s a film that must seem, if not offensive to my cultural sensibility, then irritatingly irrelevant to the poverty, underdevelopment, and upheaval that surround my life.
In most cases dropping the word “white” in the same paragraph as “Islam’s respect for women” is all it would take to slam Lars von Trier in this context. It would be a politically correct slur, too. I could even draw on Edward Said’s hallowed legacy to point out that the only time non-Europeans appear in over four hours of action, they’re portrayed as dumb sex tools. Not only self-indulgent and obscene but also Orientalist, etc..
But the truth is I actively delighted in Nymphomaniac, and I didn’t have to stop being an Arab for that to happen. To be accurate I should say I would’ve welcomed a von Trier film anyway, but this one showed up when it was needed—and it duly exploded on arrival.
By the time I smuggled a copy of both released volumes onto my hard drive, I had deleted, not merely deactivated my Facebook profile. The public conversation in Egypt that Facebook was my way of joining had already censored itself down to the current military-Islamist quarrel, and I found the hysterical debates on this as on previous topics in politics not only dreary but also impertinent to the ethical and intellectual concerns I do have.
Instead of joining in the yo mama status-update match-ups, which I had occasionally done before, I decided to bail out of the self-imposed three-year sentence to engagement that I suddenly realized I was still serving. The reprieve of an avant-garde Socratic dialogue posing as pornography was my way of celebrating this newfound freedom.
Sad that I couldn’t see the movie on the big screen, but unless there was a fluke indie show I could attend—unlikely—I knew neither half was ever going to make it past the ban barriers anywhere in the vicinity.
The two files on my desktop felt like a gift, a breath of genius from one of the most inspiring people in my life, which for me is as good a place to be inspired as the Cannes Film Festival. But on actually playing them back to back, and then one more time, I realized the movie could be deeply relevant to what I was brooding over.
More than sex, Nymphomaniac is about what it means to be a bad person, or what it would take to be good. This is the question that underlies the conversation I had just left, never mind that in my case it was being raised in relation to revolution, not love. But unlike Lars’s savage soul-baring, even creative attempts at answering it with reference to revolution had all been disappointing.
They were versions of the kind of good vs. evil narrative that seems designed to dodge the truth—statements of right and wrong, not grapplings with the fact that, if you want substance beyond the platitudes you already believe, you can’t know right from wrong in this way.
Technically sound though it is, Jehane Noujaim’s 2013 documentary The Square, for example, takes the by then dog-tired cliche that Arab Spring protesters are heroes fighting the good fight and grafts it onto otherwise undifferentiated news material. It does not deal with the fact that this is a battle fought on behalf of political Islam. It suggests both that the protesters will eventually win and that this would be a good thing: two very questionable hypotheses parroting a version of events the global status quo had already stamped kosher:
Notwithstanding the many-splendored terror resulting from Islamist power and influence, notwithstanding even the Islamists’ intention to establish an extra-national sectarian theocracy in place of the republic (so this version of events maintains), what the Arab Spring is about is democracy, human rights, and—the voice of Mel Gibson as William Wallace on horseback echoes gratingly in my head here—freedom.
In beautifully stark contrast, Lars scours out the tunnels of his and his actors’ consciousness. He decimates all that can be taken for granted about his respective subject, sex addiction, presenting a human being who if not good in any recognizable sense is at least capable of thinking of herself as bad—far more than can be said of Noujaim’s real-life heroes, their Islamist manipulators, or the world community that approves of them.
Contemporary humanity in all its horrendous complexity—and even if what Lars delivers by taking it on is fairytale nonsense that only matters to himself and his admirers, at least he hasn’t pretended to be objective, universal, or fair. He hasn’t claimed to cater to everyone and then gone on to peddle some of the oldest and cheapest prescription bullshit on the market.
This is why I feel that what’s been happening in Egypt since protests led to regime change through military intervention in 2011, and again in 2013, is not as far removed from Lars’s Copenhagen calm as I might’ve thought. From where and when I saw the film, revolution is another thing Nymphomaniac manages to be about.
Joe (Stacy Martin/Charlotte Gainsbourg) is far more like my idea of a revolutionary than any Arab Spring activist I’ve come across—and that’s not just because, unlike the majority of female protesters in Egypt, she doesn’t enslave herself to tradition by wearing hijab.
Joe has exactly the right mixture of subversive drive and self-questioning sincerity. Society as it is truly alienates her, and there is nothing half-hearted or pious about the way she struggles to transcend its dictates.
In this sense she is utterly unlike Egypt’s muddle of pro-ballot box theocrats, neoliberal idealists, and pseudo-Marxist patriots: the mostly young, supposedly good people making up the revolutionary hordes, who number far fewer—let it be admitted—than their bad counterrevolutionary enemies.
As potential agents of change, after all, the revolutionaries objected only to the misapplication of existing rules, to abusive or corrupt power failing to implement justice. They allowed their all-too-orthodox morality to turn them into the useful idiots of a political force that would eliminate any positive role they might play.
Joe, by contrast, doesn’t struggle for what is objectively right. She subjectively transgresses rules and principles, and—once again, unlike the Twitter-militants back here—not for a moment does she whine about having to pay the price.
Nymphomaniac is a kind of Greek tragedy told in a combination of narration and flashbacks, very classically structured. At the same time it is the most decadent statement on personal relations I have seen to date.
Replace excessive carnal desire with a high-sounding aspiration like dignity, however, and your coarse symbolic interpretation will not be too far out. As a biopic subtitled “The Incredibly Implausible Life of a Revolutionary in Eight Chapters”, Nymphomaniac covers every facet of the archetype.
First, Joe lovelessly loses her virginity to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf/Michael Pas). It’s a humiliating and pleasureless episode, but it leaves her ready to embark on her calling. She begins with independent activism, competing with her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) to seduce random men on the train. This, they do before they commit to organized work with a group of purposefully promiscuous women who reject all romantic attachments.
Joe rebels against the party line when she falls in love with the selfsame Jerôme (who reappears as her boss, only to disappear again before she has a chance to tell him). After losing him she abandons her early idealism for a fierce pragmatism, expertly two-timing scores of men, lying to them, and occasionally ruining their lives.
She returns to her idealism when Jerôme reappears yet again, this time to become her domestic partner and the father of her baby boy Marcel (three-year-old Jacob Levin-Christensen). But before too long, living with him, she is devastated to realize she can no longer achieve orgasm. Joe will never be the same again.
Aside from this misfortune, it is Jerôme’s confessed inability to satisfy her appetite that sends her back out on the street.
By the time she is cast out of his life, never to see Marcel again—an inevitable development after they agree she will seek fulfillment elsewhere—Joe has already started on what the film describes as the ecclesial journey from east to west, from joy in the Savior to pain in sin. She seeks out the ludicrously matter-of-fact BDSM master K (Jamie Bell), whose brutish ministrations induce some response though he will not have intercourse with her.
Already Joe’s biological equipment is failing from overuse, but when confronted with the choice between quitting her habit and losing her job, she eventually gives society the finger.
Through L (Willem Dafoe), she embraces the nymphomaniac’s equivalent of armed resistance, defying law and order altogether to become a professional debt collector. She can use her sexual experience to catch out and taunt the debtors about their secret perversions. As her business thrives, L advises her to find “a successor”, he identifies a suitable candidate, the orphan girl P (Mia Goth), and in time P duly becomes her devoted acolyte, assistant, and lover.
The day does come when P betrays Joe for an affair with the first debtor Joe lets her deal with on her own, however (he just happens to be Jerôme). When she discovers their affair, Joe tries to kill them but forgets to release the safety on the revolver. Jerôme strikes her savagely, and so she relives their first encounter.
“He shoved his cock inside me and humped me three times,” which he is now doing to P while Joe lies bleeding on the floor, before P—having satisfied him—walks over and pisses on Joe. “Then he turned me over like a sac of potatoes, then he humped me five times in the arse.”
As they walk away Joe seems to sum up the entirety of her life as she mutters, to no one in particular, “Fill all my holes please.”
The scene brings her strange tale full circle, connecting the frame story of the film with the episodes that have been leading up to it. It explains how, at the start of the film, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) comes to find her badly beaten and unconscious in the back-alley near his home.
After she prevents him from calling an ambulance, the bookish middle-aged man who will turn out to be her diametrical opposite—an asexual virgin—takes Joe in. They eventually agree she will tell him her story, which she warns him will be long and moral. He nods, and hence—well, the film.
A dialogue, a tragedy, and a biopic, Joe’s narrative is also a Brechtian performance in which Seligman helps along with metaphors for various periods and tropes, coming into his own as a character only in the second half.
Of course, the narrative is a totally unconvincing string of coincidences, and in any other format it would’ve been preposterous. But like the humor and the hard-core erotica (much of which was cut out of the version I saw), it’s in-your-face and endearingly amateurish—perhaps “raw” is the more accurate term—and it plays a dangerous game with your comfort zone.
Lars refers to Antichrist by showing Marcel about fall out of the balcony. He refers to his pro-Hitler verbal blunder at Cannes in 2011 by making Seligman, an indispensable character, a descendent of Jews.
Seligman provides the running commentary, very intellectual and very comic but increasingly somber and incredulous in the second half, that Lars translates to Tarkovsky-style poetry. He does so using forms of layering, animated graphics, and split-screen sequencing as well as Dogma 95 techniques—to hilarious, heart-wrenching, and hilariously heart-wrenching effect.
As a hypothetical debate between Sensual Flesh and Neutered Intellect—stress “hypothetical”—Nymphomaniac works. It works as revolution, not merely art. It works as revolution, I think, because it cuts open society’s normal silences, its unspoken wounds, in a way that seems far more radical than the hang-the-infidels leitmotif of Egyptian marches on both sides of the army-Muslim Brotherhood divide.
Forget the obvious discrepancy between collective action and an individual’s life course, Lars’s appeal to the emotions is far less hackneyed than the melodrama of protesters being crushed by men in uniform. This is especially true once you can no longer see what they’re protesting for—unless it’s to bring to power religious fanatics who would do things more terrible than anything the current authorities are capable of, crushing them all the more ruthlessly in the process.
The heroic discourse, the brattish blindness to consequences, the unfounded presumption of both the moral high ground and one’s own historic significance: all these together with the lack of any practicable vision for the polity make up an ugliness that, while integral to Egypt’s activists, does not come up in connection with Joe. As an agent of subversion Joe is not only more consistent but also infinitely more interesting. Her suffering hits deeper, more sensitive nerves.
That said, of course, Lars has absolutely no reverence for suffering. It is his willingness to make you giggle in a potentially tragic situation that makes things so unsettling when Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), for example, shows her children Joe’s “whoring bed”. She has trailed Mr. H (Hugo Speer), Joe’s deluded lover, to the house after he told her he was leaving her for the young woman, bringing the children along.
If not for Seligman, Joe wouldn’t have known that the vision she had when she spontaneously orgasmed as a 12-year-old (played by Ananya Berg) was not of the Virgin Mary and some female saint but of the wanton Roman empress Valeria Messalina (Tabea Tarbiat) and the Great Whore of Babylon (Janine Romanowski). They are flanking what appears to be a pumped-up tracksuit jacket in “a blasphemous retelling of the transfiguration of Jesus on the Mount”.
Such is Lars’s approach to the possibility of kitsch: self-conscious to the point of baroque, yet lyrical, its sentimentality intact. It’s a glorious antidote to the kind of unimaginative slogan-chanting that routinely followed communal prayers at Arab Spring demonstrations.
There are moments in Nymphomaniac that make the revolution look like reality TV (which, for those who didn’t take part in it, phenomenologically, it was). The comparison isn’t as arbitrary as it sounds. As much as anything else, the revolution was the subject of audiovisual documentation: a compulsively filmed string of events in which the filming was often more important than what was being filmed. Events were filmed not only by news channels, which interpreted them as per their owners’ political agendas, but also by everyone who participated in them.
In fact the revolution has arguably had less impact as a historical event than as a wildly popular TV epic, a kind of scattershot soap opera with its own settings, plot lines, and even good-guy and bad-guy stars—the celebrity activists and counter-activists who continue to dominate the local talk shows.
Reality looks somewhat more real when, grieving beyond consolation, Joe climaxes astride a young hospital employee (Markus Tomczyk) while the father she has always loved (Christian Slater) is dying horribly of delirium tremens.
It looks more real when Joe wakes up in the middle of the night to masturbate frantically, then walks to the kitchen and starts hitting herself with a wet towel between the legs, breaking down as Jerome tries to pick her off the floor—unable accept the fact that her vagina will no longer respond.
Joe the torturer breaks a man (Jean-Marc Barr) by having him tied up, exposed, and going through “the catalog of sexual deviations” to see which would give him an erection. When it finally turns out he is a repressed pedophile—something she respects, since it is clear he has never acted on his desire—she gives him a blowjob out of pity. “Yes,” she tells a stunned Seligman. “I saw a man who was carrying the same cross as myself.”
By these means Lars von Trier addresses not so much sex, religion, and morality as the avowedly insolvable problems of living through them. He engages the psyche by arguing with the lies that sustain it, not by citing dodgy evidence in the course of repeating them.
Without so much as naming his subjects, and exuberantly unafraid of what the contemporary world might deem incorrect, he has fun undermining patriarchy, capitalism, and globalization. Laughing, he points out what is wrong with sameness and conformity. But his message is all the more powerful where there are people who, claiming rebellion, are at bottom more conservative than what they’re rebelling against.
With this film, I feel Lars has something to say to the Arab Spring. Beyond showing up Egypt’s crybaby reformists as they act out their fake stormings of the Bastille to ultimately reactionary ends, he has something to say to the Arabs’ failure to deal with social-cultural and, yes, sexual problems on which change depends. Change depends on tackling these problems to a far greater extent than it does on surface power structures.
Change the regime as many times as you like, but without opening up the wounds—and there are more and deeper wounds here than Lars could ever imagine—you can only reproduce the horror.
As an Arab I am grateful that the world lets Lars von Trier do what he does—especially now that I know it’s a world we share, not only through the good but also through the bad things: the repressions, the cliches, the untruths. In an increasingly smaller room where the conversation is about other people’s platitudes, here is someone with the courage to divulge his truth.
And here I am, thousands of miles away, to listen.