The Irony of Lars von Trier: A feminist analysis of Nymphomaniac (2013)

After seeing the Lars von Trier’s controversial new film Nymphomaniac (2013)  (or really two films), I can say that it was generally watchable as a film (assuming someone doesn’t have an aversion to graphic content) but there was a tension between the  message of the film, which, in a poor film-making choice was told explicitly to the audience, and the actual content that was shown. Specifically, since the film dealt with women and sex, it is appropriate to use a feminist lens to analyze the film. 

As mentioned before, the film makes the strange choice to explain to the audience the point of every scene and the ostensibly pro-feminist message of the film. This is perhaps not without cause, von Trier has been accused of being a misogynist for the unfortunate outcomes of women in his films and making a film where a sex-addicted women falls on hard times would probably further that image. And while he is certainly no misogynist, it is hard to see this film as a feminist parable.

The film is takes place in the present where Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, is found lying in an alley and is given refuge by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) and the two recount her life’s story, going into flashbacks of her youth. After she finishes her story, Seligman concludes that her fall from grace was the result of European society’s double standard for women.

This is particularly odd given Joe’s character. First she is explicitly illiberal when it comes to race, democracy, and equality in general (although without a central core that can identify an ideology). For instance when she is in a sex-addicts self-help group, she gives a rousing speech about how she is better than all the other women there and that societal standards for egalitarianism are wrong. It is also odd given her backstory: throughout the film, Joe never explicitly faces structural barriers as a women (at one point she even gets a job despite having no experience) and any sanctions come from her loved ones. For instance, Joe leaves her child alone from 2 AM to 6 AM alone to go to BDSM building, which almost results in the child’s death. After she does it again, her husband and child leave her.

Thus despite the proclamations to the audience, the film is not seen as a struggle of women in a patriarchal society; instead we are shown a reactionary struggling in a liberal society. Given the politeness of strangers, Joe’s illiberal character and easy achievements, and the hatred of her by her loved ones, it is hard to see it in any other way. von Trier also has precedent for using reactionary themes in his films. In Manderlay (2005), von Trier presents a slave plantation that is trapped in time in the 1930s and, after being liberated by an idealistic mob heiress, falls apart because of the dependencies of the former slaves (apparently von Trier never heard about the slave uprisings and mass escapes in general).

One can of course, make the argument that perhaps the home-maker structure itself was oppressive, forcing her to neglect her child, but among all the proclamations of double standards, this one was never pointed out. Indeed, what’s hiding behind the graphic content in von Trier’s film, is an oddly reactionary story.