Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is more than the media controversy surrounding it. Sex is not news for Trier’s films, whose Zentropa film company, aside from producing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, has also produced female-targeted porn films such as All About Anna, and of course Trier’s Antichrist, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character cut her clitoris with scissors.
No doubt, Trier and actor Shia LaBeouf (playing Jerome in Nymphomaniac) love to cause media uproar. From LaBeouf’s paper bag on his head saying “I am not famous anymore” to Trier’s T-shirt saying “Persona non grata” at Berlinale 2014, the buzz around Nymphomaniac seems to prevail over the film’s analysis and artistic considerations. The reason is probably as much Trier’s and Labeouf’s personalities as it is film marketing. Yes, the film contains sex and nudity, and yes, it was banned in Turkey. But aside from that, Nymphomaniac may be no less than an excruciatingly humorous mockery of modern society’s nymphomania for more of everything, or an equally accurate allegory for the vain quest for happiness, meaning, and pleasure in the human condition.
The Nymphomaniac captures its central theme, the inability to fulfill the human desire, with a simple dissolve: from an indoor school gym where people are cleaning the floor to a beautiful sunset. The sunset is a metaphor for the human’s desire for beauty and pleasure, while the first shot stands for the confinements of the human existence and the inability to achieve sensation. As Joe says:
I remember this word very distinctly: sensation. Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.
Much like the nihilism Noam Chomsky expressed in Michel Gondry’s documentary, “You go from dust to dust and there is no meaning to life,” Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character Joe in Nymphomaniac says at one point about her walks in the park:
These repeated walks became a kind of metaphor for my life: monotonous and pointless. Yes, precisely like the movements of a caged animal. Basically, we are all waiting for permission to die.
And if you think that’s bleak, don’t worry because Nymphomaniac is just as equally hilarious as it is poignant. The movie is intentionally unrealistic, augmented, fairy-tale-like, and Brechtian. Trier’s intentional break of illusion and use of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect is the main focus of this article.
Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Analysis: Brechtian Alienation
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht describes the concept of Verfremdungseffekt (commonly translated as “illusion effect”) as the approach of estrangement/alienation of the audience from the play and its realism. Verfremdung does not aim to realistically portray events and characters. Rather, it emphasizes certain aspects of the play by augmentation, hyperbole, and unrealistic portrayal. The goal is to distance the audience from the characters and the story, to distance the reality of the audience from the illusion of the stage. Through this estrangement, the audience can no longer predict what will happen or relate to the characters in a believable way. The unrealism of the story distances the audience from it, and they can now examine it from a critical point of view, rather than simply relate to it on an emotional level. The play is not a realistic representation of the events, but rather an allegoric one. As Gilberto Perez discusses in his book “The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium,”:
We are prevented, in Brecht, from taking the enactment for the action: the action is not performed, no longer there on stage, but referred to by the performance.
Lars von Trier has used the Verfremdung approach repeatedly in his work, most prominently in Dogville where realism is abandoned altogether. The “town” of Dogville is a flat-surface set that the audience has to imagine as a town. The characters are knocking on imaginary doors and their houses have imaginary walls:
Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: The Names
Actor Stellan Skarsgård plays Seligman in Nymphomaniac, about whose name Gainsbourg’s character in the film says, “What a fucking ridiculous name.” Trier gives intentionally unrealistic names to many of the film’s characters: Mrs. and Mr. H, B, S, F, K, L, and P. Of course, the idea is not original (as Allergy to Originality argues, nothing is), and has been around at least since the modernist Franz Kafka and the protagonist of his “The Trial,” K. Just like Kafka’s story is an allegory rather than a realistic account, so is Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Skarsgård, a frequent collaborator with Trier, explained the director does not strive for realism:
All his films are fairy tales, it’s not realistic people, but he brings them alive. It has a heightened level that is very exciting.
But of all the character’s names, the most enigmatic is Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe. Although the name is somewhat plausible even for a woman and even without a last name, the context of Jimi Hendrix’ song “Hey Joe” makes it seem as yet another allegory. The last chapter of Nymphomaniac is “The Gun,” and as Joe leaves carrying a gun in her hands, the song “Hey Joe” starts playing. But it is not the original by Jimi Hendrix, nor the cover by Patti Smith. It is the cover by Charlotte Gainsbourg herself, who recorded the song specifically for the purpose of the Nymphomaniac.
Thus the non-diegetic song refers to the diegetic Joe, and the non-diegetic Charlotte Gainsbourg references the diegetic Joe. The approach blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic, and the unrealism of the story blends with reality in a way similar to Funny Games.
Nymphomaniac’s Unrealistic Plot
As Joe is telling her story to Seligman, he interrupts her at one point because he does not believe it sounds plausible. The scene seems to be a subtle self-reference to the film itself (unlike Get A Horse!’s obvious self-reference), which is intentionally unrealistic:
There are some completely unrealistic coincidences in your story of your own. First, by chance [Jerome] hires you as an assistant, and then you take a walk in a forest that’s littered with photographs of him, and not only that, he is present, and then like a god, pulls you up through the clouds.
When Joe tries to explain how it happened, Seligman says, “I am not sure I can believe you.” Then Joe responds without further trying to convince him, but instead subtly referencing the film’s implausibility:
Which way do you think you get the most of my story? By believing in it or by not believing in it?
Just like Joe seems to be aware of the implausibility of her story, Nymphomaniac is aware of its own implausibility. Joe’s comment best expresses this, as it is a subtle and indirect self-reference by the film itself. Moreover, the fact that the Nymphomaniac’s plot is driven by Joe’s telling of the story looking back (as opposed to the audience directly experiencing it in present) further diminishes the story’s realism.
In Nymphomaniac Volume 2, Joe’s talks about an event in which invisible forces raised her from the ground and saints appeared. Not only does the story sound ridiculous, but the scene’s visual style is an obvious mockery of cheap sci-fi films. The scene thus draws attention to its own artifice and unrealism.
In the train scene, when the story “goes back,” the film rewinds—a scene similar to the remote control scene in Funny Games, although not as obviously self-referential.
Nymphomaniac’s Visual Style
The film’s visual style is Brechtian and defies realism because it introduces non-diegetic elements—split screen, text, and graphics.
Split screen is more common in conventional documentaries (Stories We Tell does not fall in that category), as it calls attention to the film’s presence and distorts the film diegesis.
Nymphomaniac is divided into chapters, introduced by a non-diegetic text. This is common for Trier’s films, as Dogville and Antichrist have a distinct chapter structure. Melancholia is divided in two parts, both of which are introduced non-diegeticly. The “chapters” highlight the story-like qualities of the film and abandon an attempt for realistic portrayal. They are explicitly referring to the fiction of the film.
Non-diegetic text also appears when the story refers to the Fibonacci numbers—visually they are non-diegetic for the Nymphomaniac’s film diegesis, but also non-diegetic to Joe’s story. The Fibonacci numbers and the Cantus Firmus discussion are a way of interrupting and distorting the diegesis of Joe’s story—Seligman’s commentary provides an outside to Joe’s story, thus diminishing its natural flow. One of Brecht’s main goals in the Verfremdung effect is to go against what feels natural for the audience.
Brecht’s illusion aims to make the audience active in the story—they have to participate and actively imagine it. As Perez said, the action/story is not really enacted, but rather referred to. Therefore, both the beginning and the end of Nymphomaniac are a black screen with only sound—it is up to the audience to imagine the action.
But the Brechtian breaks of illusion in Nymphomaniac do not mean the story is a ludicrous fiction that has no tangent points with reality. Rather, they paint an allegorical picture of reality, one that artistically distorts and enhances certain elements to draw attention to them. The film is perhaps an artistically reflected version of the reality of the human condition. It is both poignant and hysterical at the same time, and a lot of its humor comes from its seriousness—there is just something metaphysically funny about Joe saying with Gainsbourg’s most calm and grave voice, “I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old.” And this ambiguity between the real and the fiction, the happy and the sad, only make Nymphomaniac seem all the more “true.” As Brecht himself said:
That’s great art: nothing obvious in it. I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.