Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and the art of sex


Charlotte Gainsborough features in one of only two stills released for Nymphomaniac

Lars Von Trier’s two part film Nymphomaniac is not even out yet but it’s already one of the most talked about and anticipated releases of 2013. Shia LaBeouf‘s comments to a  journalist last year that the sex in the film was going to be unsimulated has more than raised eyebrows: it has provoked an outpouring of condemnation from film fans, with some slamming the film as ‘just’ porn even before a trailer has been released. Trier is planning to release two versions of the film; an explicit cut and a softer cut, and with breakout star Stacy Martin in a recent interview discussing the use of porn doubles, there is no doubt that this film is intended to and will shock. Sex is now a staple of the contemporary cinema experience and unsimulated sex is not exactly new; Trier’s last film Antichrist featured unsimulated sex in the first scene, so what’s all the fuss about? Is there a place for for this type of expression in mainstream modern cinema?

Free speech, sexual expression and pushing the boundaries of social norms has always been at the heart of the moving picture industry. In the 1920’s the conservative right found the notion of creative freedom so threatening to the core religious and social values in the United States, that a law, The Hays Code, was rushed through demanding all film scripts pass a certain standard and pertain to a certain set of strict values. It wasn’t until 1952 that the Supreme Court overturned The Hays Code and declared that all movies fell under the banner of free speech; to censor such art forms would be an infringement of human rights. This coincided with the theory of the ‘auteur’ coming out of France in the 1950’s; an idea that films were not just individually crafted parts adding up to a whole, but were a flow of consciousness from one individual, the director, that could not be censored or controlled. To censor such expression would be to censor art and society itself. Since the overturning of The Hays Code, sex has been deeply embedded into the film industry. 9 1/2 Weeks and Basic Instinct are just a few examples of sex featuring in, and defining, a film. Sex pours off our screens and, when it is done well, it is achieved with good acting, great direction and expertly contrived staging. The sex in these films, as with all other Hollywood films, is as fabricated and is usually the most staged part of the film itself. Clearly we do not need to see actors having sex to believe it within the context of a narrative, so what will real sex add to a film that simulated sex can’t?

One must always be hesitant to define or label any film prior to a release or without seeing a trailer, however, it’s safe to say that whatever Nymphomaniac is, if the hype is to be believed, it is technically pornography; simply defined as ‘printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs’. Written and directed by Von Trier and the third title in his “Trilogy of Depression” (after Antichrist and MelancholiaNymphomaniac is about sex so it’s reasonable to assume the sex scenes will be frequent and sustained. The fact alone that there will be two cuts of the film demonstrates the explicitness of the sex is redundant to the story. In a ‘mainstream’, dramatic film anything redundant to the characters, narrative or theme is ultimately gratuitous. Really, the question raised here then is can pornography be dramatic? Can an explicitly sexual narrative be visually compelling?

Nymphomaniac is about the liberation and sexual awakening of the main female protagonist. The choice to use unsimulated sex could be a powerful tool; liberating the viewer from social constraints, especially when viewed with another person, and forcing a viewer to address what we consider appropriate in film. The symbolism is undeniable. Why self-censor what is a basic human instinct, regardless of if it’s sex for reproduction or for pleasure? Done well, as we know Trier is more than capable, the film could liberate its audience. Pornography is so often alienating to women, but with expert execution, Nymphomaniac could break down taboos and boundaries. If the sex scene in Antichrist is anything to go by, the sex will be stylised, beautifully shot and built into the drama, although, one has to point out,  seeing penetration added nothing to the scene and did little to define or shape the narrative arcs of the characters. However, one can’t help but feel this is the point. Trier is revelling in this; suggesting you can stimulate the body as well as the mind. He is toying with the audience and challenging what is considered acceptable to society. The use of bona fide Hollywood stars, regardless of whether they are the ones having sex, confuses the genre, the message, the interest and the reception to this type of film.

Real sex is always going to be a dangerous card to play for any serious director. It can have the opposite affect of what is intended. Instead of drawing the audience in, unsimulated sex can alienate the audience from the real. We become hyper aware that film stars are having sex on screen. By sticking a scene under the microscope and censoring nothing you risk highlighting the falsity as much as exposing the real. It will take a steady hand and a defined vision to create a synchronism between pornography and storytelling. Indie film 9 Songs was remarkably bland when it attempted this in 2004; this is not a landscape which is easy to navigate.

The proof ultimately will be in the pudding and to be close-minded to the forthcoming Nymphomaniac definitely isn’t the way forward. It may be the time for porn to come out of the dark and into the light and Trier may just be the man to carve out a new niche of ‘mainstream’ erotica.  As a society we make the leap that porn cannot be art. Trier is pushing back. Its our own shortcomings that restricts us to define art; this could be undefinable. This could be fantastic. It could not. Either way I am open-minded to what is the future of sex in cinema. This film could define in which direction it leads. Or it could not.

The film is released in Denmark on 30th May, 2013, so expect it worldwide around that time.


9 thoughts on “Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and the art of sex

  1. Some very interesting points. I’m on the fence about this. Part of me thinks that anything can go on film, so just go for it and those who might be offended just shouldn’t watch it. On the other hand, I feel that this could just be purely for shock tactics and a gimmick to get people to watch the film. I haven’t seen Antichrist but if the unsimulated sex added nothing to the scene then why do it if not for shock value? I’m still open minded about the whole thing though and I’m interested to see what Nymphomaniac is like, but I just have a sneaky suspicion it’s going to be a complete and utter mess.

    1. Definitely something we considered. Antichrist is a tough watch regardless of the initial sex scene, which is billed as Defoe but it’s actually a stunt ‘member’. He’s a really challenging director, and one must always take what he says with a pinch of salt, so we may never know exactly his intentions!!

    1. Thanks a lot. It’s a debate that will always be around, so it’s been interesting to take a look deeper. Interested to see where he takes this. Apparently Shia the Beef sent a sex tape of him and his girlfriend to Trier get the part…

  2. Great post. A lot of interesting things in your article. I’m still kind of surprised that we can show a lot of heavy violence in movies and not bat an eye but yet become skittish when it comes to sex on screen

    1. Thanks a lot! It’s baffling, for sure. Rolling news has more horrific imagery than most conservative horror movies, and there are times of the day in which censoring violence should happen and it doesn’t. Show some breast before 9pm? You’re getting 2000 complaints.

      There is certainly a bizarre relationship between sex and the movies, and we are sure that Trier is going to over-step the boundaries of acceptance in this movie.

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