Is sexuality agonizing or liberating?
What defines the line between eroticism and pornography in art?
Should we be true to ourselves even if we hurt ourselves and others in process?
Can we turn our moral lens into a moral compass guided by our hearts rather than our norms?
Lars von Trier ‘used’ the nymphomaniac theme to get several messages across (at times, in a condescending manner, overtly clear), which makes the movie fall short of being an otherwise masterful metaphor. It is charged with political and cultural ideologies emphasized through the words of its protagonists, explaining what we already know all too well: that the society is plagued with hypocrisy, that you’ll be judged and hurt if you’re different, that women cannot ‘get away’ with actions that men would actually brag about, to the end of the list. So, where is the twist?
Before talking about the twist, the context is worth a couple of paragraphs. The ability of Lars von Trier to play around the fine line between pornographic material and erotic content is phenomenal. In Part I, we watch a cascade of erotic scenes that, eventually, gives way to a more profound moments of truth, as Christian Slater experiences delirium and falls apart, and as Uma Thurman thrashes the ‘whore’ that stole away her husband. In Part II, the intensity is realized through sexuality, as Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) experiments with a full spectrum of sexual practices, in a ‘sincere’ attempt to recover her ability to orgasm and realize her full fantasy, which she did through assuming uncalculated (and even absurd) risks and painful encounters: a baptism of fire, as she finally ‘comes’ while being sodomized (the age-old pleasure-and-pain thing).
Throughout the two parts, she never lied to herself, never got ‘off her way’ for anyone or anything, never restrained herself from fulfilling her desire, and not because she was a ‘whore’ (to use the language of some viewers), but because she was being herself: a nymphomaniac.
Then comes what would be the twist, as her story (or rather stories) fall upon the ears of an older man, a well-read man who admits towards the end that he is a virgin and who refers to himself as ‘asexual’. He seems to live on the margin of society, and that’s why he does not share the disturbed views commonly held by its members. He relates to all what she says in literary and cultural terms (his mindset belongs to another realm), and he helps her put things in perspective, accepting her and reassuring her, before finally switching roles! At the end of it all, his entire lifetime of learning and theorizing gives way to the most powerful instinct as he tries to have sex with her, only to prove her point. The man who had told her that he ‘would not get on his knees for religion or sex’ finally loses it, getting on his knees.
She shoots him in the dark, and the movie ends to the tunes of a variation on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’: Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?
The real twist, at least to my way of understanding, is one that involves the viewer and how he/she would isolate himself/herself from the traditional norms and natural leniency to judge as he/she sees his/her own nakedness (morally and physically) in the most extreme of contexts.
I personally liked the movie a lot, not for its over-worn messages (even if they have been clothed in a feminist attire), but rather for being a profound satire on the human condition, having –literally- stripped it to the saddening core.