“To look is to sometimes also forget that one is seen.” — Pastor Prime
PART TWO: HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU: AN EXISTENTIALLY BIOLOGICAL CRITIQUE of LARS VON TRIER’S NYMPHOMANIAC VOL l and VOL ll and ITS MAKING
(part one is HERE)
Danish film director Lars Von Trier was fit and okay-looking in the 1980s and 1990s.
Von Trier’s appearance has degenerated profoundly as he has aged. This is standard for humans, though the degree of degeneration varies wildly depending on a cluster of factors.
Accepted standards in Art Criticism tend to cause critics to shy away from plugging biographically body-based judgments into the circuit of the Art’s critique but such Olympian squeamishness is jejune in the extreme, in my opinion. The shape of Von Trier’s body has shaped the body of his work. Specifically: Von Trier’s growing unfuckability.
No one tells us about aging. Not really. What we “know” about aging we “know,” mostly, from watching Television: we see 25-year-old actors wearing prosthetic wrinkles and gray or white wigs. Maybe they’re playing it a bit stooped but they’re still fit, usually, because it’s rare that the make-up department ages the actor as gray and fat and into unrecognizability. It’s rare that the magic of film or video renders the transformation of aging to the astonishing degree that Life usually does. No one sits you down at 10 or 25 or 35 and says: prepare yourself.
If you’re careful you can control/ contain the damage.
If you’re drinking and eating terrible foods and distracted by pursuits that leave you physically inactive most of the day, the 20-year-stretch from 30 to 50 will destroy the image you once believed you presented to the world. The damage this does, to the psyche, must be immense. Especially if Time’s (and diet’s) victim was ever a sexual being. If your vanity was ever strong, that strength will turn on you and vanity becomes a very loud and crude and autonomous torture device, with rusty blades, strapped around your midsection, with the advent of neutering, ugly, unhealthy aging. We are not just Intelligences; not just Ideas: we are Animals and Objects, too. When you age beyond your reproductive peak, as a human (c. 18-35 years old?), you become post-Human. When you age out of the beauty of your Youth, as an Object, you become, on the level of objects, garbage. You can fight that, of course. But what if you don’t?
What if you lie to yourself and say “Who cares?” What if your job, as an ugly old genius, is to work with unusually charming and beautiful women, day in and day out? What if you’re a fashion photographer? What if you’re a film director? What if you’re Alfred Hitchcock or Lars Von Trier? What if you’d still like to fuck? What if you weren’t as powerful as Harvey Weinstein (once was) and you were old and ugly (and 30x as brilliant) as Harvey and you wanted to fuck?
(sidebar: There’s another discussion to be had out of this. Briefly: did the postWar (consumer) invention of the self-aware Teen Ager, with “youth-qua-youth” a value in itself, destroy “genius-qua-genius,” as Sexual Currency, by, quite fairly, subjecting Men to standards similar to the standards by which Men had always judged Women? Spencer Tracy was a leading man, a “sex symbol,” even, in the 1940s. Pablo Piccaso lost his sexual mojo in the mid-1950s when his last and most-painted muse, Sylvette David, refused to fuck him; if Pablo and Sylvette had been the same respective ages a decade earlier, would the transaction have been completed, instead…? And was Sylvette David relegated to footnote status, in Picasso’s catalogue of muses, though Picasso actually created the most muse-artifacts, of all women he’d known, from her, because she was so gauche as to not to deign to fuck the Minotaur? Perhaps marginalizing this “frigid” muse was an act of subliminal revenge among male curators/ gallerists/ critics. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock and late-model LVT made Spencer Tracy look like Sal Mineo in comparison, and Hitchcock hadn’t managed to fuck anyone since WWl, so some of the animal verities have perhaps changed very little in thousands of years… )
hadn’t eventually grown repulsively fat and grizzled, his (2013) film Nymphomaniac Volumes l and ll (a 5.5-hour, very literary, witty, disgressively encyclopedic, trivially pedantic, tone-deaf, brutal, often silly and essentially unfair attack on “romance”) would not exist.
Accusations of “misogyny,” levied against the film, are kneejerk and absurd. The words “misogynistic” and “racist” are becoming meaningless through chronic misapplication. The male characters in Nymphomaniac Volumes l and ll don’t come off any better than the females. The film could possibly be said to be misanthropic, but that would be useless and trivializing. The Diary of Anne Frank is misanthropic, too. So what?
Nietzsche’s “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling” is about right. Von Trier’s films become blacker and blacker jokes as he ages into utter unfuckability. Unlike the smelly old man in the check-out queue, smelling of piss, who attempts to flirt with the check-out girl, as he hands over his sweaty money to pay for his lunchmeat and cigarettes, Lars Von Trier is in a position to do something about the horror of it all.
The strangely-unexamined aspect of the film Nymphomaniac Volumes l and ll is its parallel narrative: along with the trajectory of the script is the trajectory of Von Trier’s rather shocking assault on many of the actors participating in the film. By making the vast majority of the unpleasant sex scenes in the film appear photo-realistically, even clinically, unsimulated, Von Trier removes the thin membrane that usually protects the actor from actually being the creature that she or he symbolically presents on screen or stage. Von Trier skins these actors of this transparent film of protection and shows them at their lowest, having recorded them appearing to commit low acts and showing this recording to ongoing streams of millions of people around the world. The conceptual framing of these recorded moments, which are mere pornography, as “Art” or even “Literature,” is no protection at all.
(sidebar: I wouldn’t be surprised, at all, to have it revealed, or “leaked,” in a few years, that some, if not all of the graphic sex in Nymphomaniac, wasn’t simulated at all. If you recall the film The Brown Bunny, Vincent Gallo told interviewers that the penis, his penis, sucked at the end of the movie, by Chloe Sevigny, a scene which Gallo ruined with the ugly “kitchen sink realism” of nasty verbal abuse, was a prosthetic: it was not. And could Von Trier really afford all that very good CGI? Better yet, wouldn’t it be a caper for him to pocket the CGI-budget with Gainsbourg’s complicity, turning her into the perfect simulacra of the badly-treated Wife?)
Is Charlotte Gainsbourg vulnerable to participating in image-assassinating roles like this because she has aged out of her Hollywoodish value as an actress? Is taking roles like this a sort of Artistic nymphomania? Is it a pre-emptively self-destructive act? Is she still being praised for her acting in this role?
Charlotte Gainsbourg (inset: allowed the mercy of make-up in a promotional photo for the film), who plays the lead, Joe, suffers the most: we see her appear to suck a real cock, we see her convincingly “barebacked” by two very big, unsimulated, black cocks in a double CGI penetration that only serves to intensify the realisation that Von Trier has filmed Gainsbourg, for a five-hour film, as ugly as possible, wearing not even the protection of makeup. In fact, such make-up as Gainsbourg is allowed to wear is the uglifying make-up, of the simulated cuts and bruises, in which her character first appears as the victim of a beating.
Gainsbourg’s character recollects her story, in the “now” of the film, in this ugly make-up, and although when her character is young, in the narrative, she is played by prettier actresses, whenever Gainsbourg’s character plays the “now” version of herself, even in the phase of “near-now” preceding the beating, she is ugly, even without the cuts-and-bruises make-up. The usual tricks of lighting and make-up are withheld. Does this make it more “realistic”? Only if people never wear make-up, and/or flattering clothing, in Real Life. Is the Ugliest Version always the Realest?
The film, in any case, is not focused on Realism any more than any novel by Magical Realists were. Perhaps the “ugly” was sold to the actors with Realism as the excuse but, if so, they were duped. Von Trier’s allegories don’t privilege “Realism” but they do privilege Ugly, because Von Trier became ugly, a transformation his shocked self-awareness had the talent, and access to production funds, to do something about, if only as an extended act of revenge. The through-line, from Hitchcock to Von Trier, on an animal level, is illuminating. Von Trier making rebuffed sexual or romantic overtures toward Björk, in whom he probably projected a lonely avant-garde kinship, reminds us of Hitchcock being rebuffed by Tippi Hedren.
“In her 2016 memoir titled Tippi, the actress, now 91, claimed she was sexually assaulted by Hitchcock (who died in 1980) several times during the making of both films. She also recalled allegedly inhumane conditions she endured (upon which Hitchcock insisted) while filming the climactic scene in the 1963 horror-thriller..
Hedren claimed Hitchcock would have his driver drive past her home and had once asked Hedren to “touch him” while they were working on The Birds. She also said he once tried to force her to kiss him in the back of a limo, writing in her book, ‘It was an awful, awful moment.'”
Hitchcock behaved abominably (“repulsively” is probably the apter word) but imagine his agony? Not only fat and old but world-famous and brilliant, too. . His considerable fund of genius being useless currency in the sex market. Any fit young blockhead with an erection, and an IQ higher than 80, had a vastly better chance, at any kind of sex life, than the director of Vertigo. The fact that this isn’t generally considered an injustice might seem like a mild kind of injustice itself, to anyone with an Artistic temperament. “But this is the greatest auteur of the postWar period!” But he is also decidedly post-Human. He is also garbage. The World, as we say, Is what it is.
“After each take the director ran up to me and wrapped his arms around me for a long time in front of all crew or alone and stroked me sometimes for minutes against my wishes,” Björk writes. “While filming in Sweden, he threatened to climb from his room´s balcony over to mine in the middle of the night with a clear sexual intention, while his wife was in the room next door.”
Fat old ugly Hitchcock and fat youngish ugly Von Trier took justice into their own hands, so to speak. But isn’t it interesting that Hitchcock’s Revenge (a term I have, on the spot, invented to describe the gamut of reactive strategies of sexually frustrated geniuses/ auteurs) was forced to be so much sneakier in Hitchcock’s day? Hitchcock’s oeuvre (with the notable exception of Hedren’s loony appearance at the end of The Birds) is full of well-lit, expertly made-up, physically beautified characters, because his audience demanded “glamour,” no matter what. Hitchcock might have had the opportunity of fucking up an actress’ career, in revenge, but he couldn’t assassinate her image onscreen. Nor break the fourth wall with unsimulated sex and assassinate her image both on and offscreen.
Von Trier had the postmodern luxury of uglifying, and graphically torturing, his characters on the screen because his well-educated target demographic values Ugliness as more Real. Melancholia, Von Trier’s most effectively depressing (and frightening) film, doesn’t bother with Ugliness because the Final Eradication of All Life in the Universe (Von Trier gives one of the film’s characters Cosmic Awareness just so she can confirm this) renders physical Beauty resoundingly pointless and, retroactively, lacking any value. Hitchcock’s Revenge on a totalizing scale… but only in the target demographic’s heads. Not out here in The World.
In Von Trier’s Antichrist, in which Gainsbourg also starred (the titular role, more or less), Willem Dafoe was the cinematic Christ, suffering his simulated trials and tribulations. In Nymphomaniac, Gainsbourg is a real Christ: that’s her jolie laid (less jolie than ever before) face with a might-as-well-be-real cock in her humiliated mouth. Can one be humiliated and not (owing to protective denials built into one’s psychology) know it? Of course one can. One can smile and wave from steps at Cannes, oblivious.
All of the photorealistically pseudo-unsimulated sex acts in Nymphomaniac Volumes l and ll could easily have been simulated in the old fashioned way: Gainsbourg’s bobbing head obscuring the imagined cock, and so forth. And Von Trier could have made the same intellectual points (or jokes), with the old school artifice, that he made with the clinically pseudo-unsimulated fucking. Or, again: was it the Real Thing?
There is a moment in the film in which Gainsbourg’s character’s most sadistic lover explains to her about “The Silent Duck”… and he forms his hand into the shape you’d form it into if you wanted to project a duck, on the wall, in a shadow play. And he slobbers all over this hand (people in such films seem to be under the impression that spit is a passable substitute for KY Jelly: if your spit is that viscous, seek medical attention) and with this hand he “fist fucks her” (or a body double is fist-fucked; we don’t see the sadist character’s supposed wrist being gripped by Charlotte’s supposed rectal sphincter but we see the beginning of the process as the beaking fingers enter someone’s body) at which point Von Trier cuts to comical footage of a large raft of querulous ducks (“raft” for ducks, “flock” for geese: what was going on, with English, when the various terms for animal gatherings… especially birds… were being assigned?). That slapsticky cut is the only “shocking” moment in the film, in my opinion; as “shocking” as the film’s Chekhov-obedient ending is not.
This trivializingly silly ducks joke is, surely, at Charlotte Gainsbourg’s expense. Suddenly she finds herself in an X-Rated Benny Hill gag. And she thought she was doing serious work and suffering for Art! This one moment punctures the pretentions of the entire project. It’s as if Scorsese had Willem Dafoe slip on a banana peel, on the way up the hill, with the cross on his back, in the final reel of The Last Temptation of Christ.
No one really needed that unsimulated sex, although many probably enjoyed it. Personally, I find runway fashion shows to be pretty good pornography, but if there has to be graphic penetration, it’s tenderness that turns me on. Love, sex, beauty, poetry… I’m the child of another Era. I fuck for connection. My cock is not a cricket bat.
Obviously, many of those who enjoyed the brutally graphic, unsimulated stuff in Nymphomaniac enjoyed it “for the wrong reasons,” just as the few deeply enamored reviews, I read, of Von Trier’s next film, his latest, the (hopefully, simulated) arc of a serial killer’s intellectual journey, seemed to find unlikely pleasure in far worse wrong places. Who needs to see a woman’s face bashed in with a tire iron? Who needs to see a woman’s breasts lopped off? What intellectual/ aesthetic purpose can even simulated images of such actions serve? This is jerk-off fodder for psychopaths but it’s wearing the make-up (or camouflage) of Art.
One can recognize extreme Art without enjoying it, especially if the point of the Art is a painful/ brutal/ vomitous sensation within the viewer; one can also avoid it. I wouldn’t vote to ban it, though such Art (or “art”) is not for me; I would vote to debate its function; but what to make of those who might thoroughly enjoy the cruelty of such material? Is that demographic, and its preferred auteurs, and the relationship between the two, in fact, a separate culture or project in parallel to the project that “we” (the gentle/ sensitive/ cultivated/ healthy/ constructive/ protective of innocence/ thoroughly-fucking-glad to be alive*) call Art?
Is that parallel culture of aestheticized cruelty a psychological and/or biological fact? Do “they” walk among us, these “fans”?
A brilliant director might also direct a project called SHIT FOR DINNER, allegorizing consumerism, power, greed, Western gluttony, class and so on, using state of the art CGI to show, e.g., Salma Hayek and Brad Pitt going from snack shops to bistros to buffets to 5-star restaurants, over the narrative arc of a plot’s 24 hours, eating hamster, cat, dog, horse, cow and (as a culmination) human shit from paper plates, napkins, bowls, fine china. The shit smeared all over their lips with loving and realistic and thoroughly revolting CGI detail. Now: question: would the allegory gain depth, and the actors emerge unscathed, if we were to discover that the shit was, after all, unsimulated?
The depth added by pseudo-real cocks in the pseudo-real apertures of the key actors, in Nymphomaniac Volumes l and ll, was not Intellectual and no deeper than the childish (A) “whoa, are those are real penetrations?” factor and (B) visceral disgust. During Gainsbourg’s double-penetration tribulation, as she is bouncing on the slapping cock-thrusts, she looks to the rear, in the direction of the camera, for no other reason than to prove it’s Charlotte Gainsbourg, and no body-double, being CGI-pounded. Did Von Trier call out to her to look at the camera or did she do so under her own initiative?
Von Trier manage to sell the might-as-well-have-been-unsimulated-fucking conceit (which, along with the Real Thing, has become de rigueur in Art House films since Catherine Breillat broke real ground in the practise in the early 2000s) to his actors? Breillat relied heavily on porn actors, for her unsimulated-fucking films, actors whose careers and reputations wouldn’t be hurt (and, besides, in Breillat’s film Romance X, for example, which “was announced as the first European film with non-simulated sex scenes,” the heroine, despite being a non-porn-actress sucking cock and being fucked every way, onscreen, comes off quite well**: it’s a “liberated woman triumphant” plot, in the end). Von Trier’s script for Nymphomaniac Vol l and Vol ll spares no character. How did he talk them into it? Yes, they aren’t A-listers; most are either very old or very young and second-string or already outcasts, like Shia LaBeouf… but how did he talk them into it?
I think Von Trier probably dared them to do it. He understood their (probably self-described “badass”) psychologies too well. He got what he wanted. Did they get proportional acclaim as Artists? How many, in the audience, understood Nymphomaniac Volumes l and ll (as a discursive visual and literary polemic) well enough to grant the participating actors that grace?
Now here’s the punchline of my critique:
If the Art here is energized by the bold breaking of a moral Fourth Wall of Cinema, by apparently stripping the actors bare of the prophylactic membrane of simulation, fusing the Art fearlessly with Life in a way that can never be undone, bravely, why didn’t Von Trier carry this “brave” experiment to its Logical Conclusion?
Why didn’t Von Trier himself make a Hitchcock-like cameo in the film, belly-naked, jerking off, or being jerked off, in CGI? The film’s omnivorous aesthetic logic, taken to the Nth degree, would have demanded Von Trier participate on that level. Von Trier stopped short of crossing that border into a more “satisfying” Aesthetic Completeness. Why? Simply because (A) he was protecting himself and (B) “satisfying” Aesthetic Completeness wasn’t his ultimate goal and (C)…
… he just didn’t want to look bad.
*Yes, I nail my colors to the mast, here: I’m not treacherous, sadistic, murderous, bitter or sexually trendy. Though my motivation, in this essay, is not a polemic against any of the cited Nasties; it’s driven by my love of Clarity. Call a thing what it is.
**On the other hand:
“Years later, Ducey [the lead in Breillat’s Romance X] cites a much more troubling moment in the production that still haunts her: When they shot the rape scene that arrives late in the movie, Ducey alleges that Breillat told the male actor — a non-professional man cast shortly beforehand — to actually try to penetrate the actress on camera. “Catherine asked me to take my pants off like five minutes before we were rolling,” Ducey said in a phone interview this week. “I was getting ready to act. I didn’t think it could happen for real. This guy, I was about to kill him.”
Ducey said she pushed him off and Breillat stopped rolling; they completed the scene, with no penetration, in the second take. That’s the one in the movie. “I was really angry at Catherine, because she didn’t need to organize the scene like that at all,” Ducey said. “It was not a snuff movie. But I still respect it, because I know what I put into it, so I don’t want to throw it all in the trash. I think the movie is important, and Catherine is a real director.”