Nymphomaniac: The Male Gaze Meets its Maker

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist came out at around the same time as James Cameron’s Avatar. There was something of a misplaced controversy at this moment, Antichrist bearing the brunt of it all whilst Avatar became the highest-grossing film of all time and garnered the odd Oscar… The reasons for the controversy surrounding Antichrist might seem obvious to anyone with an idea of what’s in the film, but what about Avatar’s contradictions? For all its supposed pontificating about environmental issues, has any film ever generated so much waste? (Having cleaned screens at a cinema between each sold-out showing – of the spilt popcorn, the food combos boxes, the 3D glasses and their packaging, strewn tickets – it’s hard to think of a contender…) And what about its plot’s very premise: an indigenous people can only be saved from their enemy by an all-American jock who bests his dead brother who was really the lame one because he was a scientist (or, as South Park puts it, a ‘Mr. Scien-tist’); something along those lines: ecological, racist, racialist and imperialist issues abound…

All the while Antichrist posed questions concerning the concept of Nature, misogyny, and the psyche, but it met such bigoted responses as that found in the exchange with the Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye, who, prior to even seeing the film, asked the director to ‘explain and justify’ it and charged him with: ‘this is the Cannes Film Festival and you’ve brought your film here and you have to explain why you made it…’, to which the auteur responded that in fact to his movie those at the festival were guests, not the other way round. But now, even the Mail seem mostly to be on board with von Trier’s new venture, Nymphomaniac (apart, of course, from some commenters, certain of whom have even called for it to be banned – probably, like Bamigboye, without having seen it), the finale of which this article will deal with, ergo: spoiler alert.

To discuss the film in terms of the construction of story is to initially raise a few points, firstly that of a process found in psychoanalysis: retroactivation. Objects from the room in which Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sits, and the way in which those objects are discussed by her and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) affect the way in which she tells her past. The things in the room ‘remind’ her of elements of her past, as when Seligman tells her that Edgar Alan Poe died of delirium tremens and she remembers the visions her father had on his deathbed. This lends a ‘random’ aspect to the narrative she tells, and Seligman even wonders whether he is supposed to ‘believe’ the coincidences. The coincidences are not entirely random however, but elements from the present affecting the past, determining which parts of it are remembered.

More than this though, the things around her in the present influence the way the past is constructed completely; it changes not just what is remembered but how it is remembered. A fishing fly-hook on the wall of the room and an analogy Seligman makes between fly-fishing and Joe’s sex-life (almost as a joke) leads her to construct her young behaviour as sexual ‘baiting’. A discussion of Bach’s polyphony as having three parts makes her choose 3 lovers to embody her sexual history in the next chapter. Joe realises that this is arbitrary and says that she doesn’t know why she’s chosen three, but von Trier shows the viewer that it isn’t arbitrary at all, but the subject’s present brought to bear on their past. And these reflections can be extended even further with reference to Nymphomaniac’s own backtracking reference to Antichrist, in which the chronologically-former film’s opening shots are recreated, but without the fatal fall of the baby, and in so happening not only is a past revisited and revised, but a future – that of Gainsbourg’s in this film replicating hers in Antichrist – is diverted.

The main thrust of the film and the discourse surrounding it, however, has been the question of its feminine or feminist position; its dealing with feminine sexuality.

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In Seminar XX Lacan jokingly berates women analysts for withholding from the school of psychoanalysis any clues to the mystery of feminine sexuality. What is in part going on in this statement – from within it – is the exposition of the very position from which the notion of ‘The Woman’ is espoused; that is, precisely, a male position. Lacan maintains that ‘The Woman doesn’t exist’, by which he doesn’t mean women, or a woman, but the notion of The Woman as created – in idealised and degrading forms – by the male gaze.

From the beginning of Nymphomaniac we are met with this problematic, for a woman – Joe – speaks, but her stories and history are constantly reinscribed into a male paradigm by Seligman’s finding everywhere parallels, allegories and analogies inspired by her tales (from likenings to Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler to visions of James Bond’s Walther PPK), the flashbacks of which are thus not fully Joe’s own.

That the film deals with feminine sexuality, that in it a woman speaks her story, or that it lets a woman speak, are instances which have met with feminist approval, but which are at the same time complicated by the fact of the male (gaze) at its helm. The truly radical moment of Nymphomaniac is then its very end. Whilst a woman has spoken throughout the film, it has been to a male interpreter, been in front of a male gaze. No matter how friendly, virginal, and sympathetic that male gaze may have been, its threat nonetheless palpably lingers. In the last scene Joe shoots Seligman after his insipid rape attempt. This shooting – left somewhat open and unconcluded – is thus not the death of the male gaze, but rather its confrontation (and possibly also the confrontation with the speculum of the other woman – to use Lacan’s most famous female student, and detractor, Luce Irigaray’s term – which leaves open the door to new takes on the film’s subject matter). It is here then that von Trier brings a certain euphemism for death formidably into its own, for it is at this point that the male gaze precisely meets its maker.

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