One thing Lars Von Trier makes it apparent from the outset is that the sex in his epic tale of a nymphomaniac named Joe is never erotic. It’s ugly, uncomfortable, weird, funny, disgusting, and surreal. But never erotic. He begins the tale of her discovering her sexuality as a toddler, and then explores her pre-pubescent obsession with her “sensations” between her legs and the tricky methods she implemented to experience them, and then recalls the awkward encounter where she lost her virginity to a local boy that garnered immense pain and unusual emotions.
Director Von Trier explores the life of a nymphomaniac and paints the experience very much in the realm of the way a nymphomaniac would view sex. It’s very rarely erotic, and often times based on ugly, unusual scenarios that keep our protagonist Joe clinging to her need for some sense of fulfillment and pleasure. Joe (Charlotte Gainsborough’s performance is absolutely mesmerizing) is not so much a sexual maniac as she is someone that is seeking something in her life that can grant her the ultimate sense of satisfaction. Director Von Trier doesn’t really empathize for her, so much as he puts her on display and asks audiences to provide their own judgments.
Much of Joe’s life is recounted through flashbacks and disjointed anecdotes that paint Joe as someone who discovered the pleasure of sex and then soon began to need it. Like a drug addict, she found that sexual pleasure was always out of her reach and every conquest gave her a sense of fulfillment, but also the nagging belief that she was sinful and a pariah, thus breeding more need for sexual confrontations. This unfolds in to a series of not so erotic moments from the afternoon where she lost her virginity, right down to an awkward meeting with two well endowed African American strangers in a motel room. Joe is a morally gray woman that we are often at odds at from the moment we find her lying on the street smelling or urine.
Discovered by a kind stranger (Stellan Skarsgård), she’s nursed back to health and explains her entire life story that led up to her current predicament of being beaten and near death on a sidewalk. Despite the fact that most of the film features endless and unflinching moments of pure sexual acts from fellatio to sodomy, director Von Trier is very skilled at making the audience either uncomfortable or confused as to his intents. He dabbles with every form of sexuality from domination, rape, lesbian confrontations, torrid affairs, and even some very careful explorations of pedophilia. It’s these moments where the audience can never really decide what sensation they should accept, since Von Trier paints sex as something other than erotic, and yet still very much so.
Take the grueling confrontation with Joe and the wife of one of her lovers. It’s a base, deep, inexplicable need that every human Joe meets feels the urge to satiate, and she herself manages to turn her own nymphomania in to a burden and a weapon. Many audiences may be quick to view the film as misogynist or sexist, but director Von Trier is very impartial when the narrative applies to gender dynamics and never quite chastises Joe for being a pure sexual being. Surely, she’s a victim to her lust, but she’s no worse than the individuals she comes face to face with, in the end. Director Von Trier’s drama is a repulsive and often polarizing character study, but one that I found quite excellent, if only for the provocative imagery and questions it poses for audiences to take with them. I loved it.