By Ethan Poe
Despite its titillating reputation Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is, essentially, a religious film. Its aggressive theologizing, in fact, runs through the film’s discussions of nature, sadomasochism, Christian iconography, and rugelach, leading the audience into an examination of psychological religion.
The film is structured as a confession: a woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found, beaten, in an alley by an older man named Seligman (Stellen Skarsgard). After taking her back to his tiny apartment, later called a “monk’s cell,” Joe regales Seligman with tales of his life as a nymphomaniac and the “old, charming bachelor” (in the words of the film’s official synopsis) shares fragments of his isolated world in return. As the film progresses, we unravel an increasingly bleak character in Seligman — he is bookish, asexual, and at times predatory.
As Joe tells her story to Seligman, she emphasizes her “sinful nature.” Joe’s story, however, is not one of sin, but, ostensibly, of love. A young man named Jerome (Shia Labeouf), is the center of her narrative. Initially, an adolescent Joe falls in love with Jerome’s strong hands. From there, their relationship grows, culminating in marriage, a child, and Joe’s eventual turn to BDSM with disciplinarian K (Jamie Bell). Ultimately, this leads to a disintegration that paves the way for the film’s finale.
It is significant that Joe articulates her own self-understanding in terms of sin, a religious category, and other religious themes work their way into her story. Though these elements are found throughout Nymphomaniac, they are most prominent in the film’s sixth chapter: “The Eastern and Western Church (The Silent Duck).”
Joe’s tale up to this point has been one of pleasurable sexual adventure.. In “The Eastern and Western Church,” however, she inexplicably loses all ability to orgasm. Two sets of flashbacks follow. In the first, Joe struggles to regain her orgasm, which results only in an act of vaginal flagellation. The second is another of Joe’s many childhood treks into nature, which Von Trier made a recurring element of previous chapters. Laying in a bed of grass, the young Joe suddenly finds herself hovering, fearful, in mid-air. Surrounded by dew and fog, she is visited by two mysterious women. Seligman identifies them as Valeria Messalina (“the most notorious Nymphomaniac in history”), and the Whore of Babylon. He describes this event as a “blasphemous transfiguration.” His analysis reflects the importance of religious imagery for him, and imposes some further significance onto the event for Joe and the viewer.
In an orgasmic state, Joe continues rising above the earth into a space of the perverted divine. This, she thinks, raises her sexuality to the level of God, what Joe calls “the most powerful force in the universe.” Her orgasm is a full infusion of this power. While she cannot control it, this transcendence heightens the tragedy of her later fall into numbness.
Following these visions of the past, we jump further ahead in Joe’s story. Raising a child strains her relationship with Jerome so intensely that he decides for Joe’s sake to open the relationship. Von Trier frames Seligman and Joe’s conversation about her marriage’s decline around an icon of the Virgin Mary in Seligman’s chamber. Seligman uses the work to reflect upon acts of iconoclasm by the Catholic Church as violent discipline, in contrast to the pleasurable indulgence of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Indeed, most of his discussion of these two churches, rests upon a conception of the violent nature of Catholic imagery. In dwelling on how such icons exemplify violence done to images of pleasure, this chapter characterizes the East as a place where one seeks pleasure and the West as a site of struggle between desire and discipline. Von Trier represents Joe’s path from pleasure to discipline in terms of ecclesiastical geography; the East is the church of sensual pleasure, the West, that of punishment. When pleasure eludes her in “the East,” she travels “west,” into the disciplinarian therapy of K.
Joe’s relationship with K is a conflict between his therapeutic distance and her embodied need for fulfillment. K attempts to create pleasure from physical structures, their scenes focusing on long shots of applying duct tape and fixing Joe into mechanical harnesses. Joe seems to experience genuine feelings for K, but her attempts to initiate sex with him are met with rejection.
It’s only when her visits to K threaten the life of Joe and Jerome’s child that this relationship escalates. Forced by Jerome to part with their child, Joe frantically moves further into K’s world of order. In this moment she attempts to exert sexual control over her master, attempting to arouse a natural response from his sterile facade. Her overture is met, appropriately for a force of the Western Church, with a Roman punishment. Joe is lashed forty times for her transgression against K’s order.
Von Trier frames this struggle between desiring both control and loss of control with the competing forces of the two churches, both of which are rendered, ultimately, impotent. In particular, the eroticized East is incapable of either full submission or full control; Joe can’t give in fully to K, nor can she control him sexually the way she has all other powers in her life. While her orgasmic revelation might seem like access to some kind of “Eastern” power, she never gains control over it either. The Western church fails also. Though Western Catholic power is a power of transformation, it cannot transform Joe.
Ultimately, Joe is left ruled by the embodied power she finds in orgasmic revelation: her personal, transcendent, sexual theology.
In many ways, both Joe and Seligman represent important parts of Von Trier’s religious thought. Seligman, an asexual hermit, represents a compelling voice in Von Trier’s theological debate. Particularly, Seligman is used to highlight a certain impotency of the modern intellectual, and the sort of vestigial interest in religion they hold. His many religious objects are of such vestigial interest. Of his “childhood nature bible” Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler all he seems to have gotten from it is a series of petty fly-fishing anecdotes. Furthermore, he denies any religious outlook. His Judaism is an inheritance, and, institutional religion, like sex, is something he claims he “won’t go down on my knees for.”
Like von Trier himself, Seligman sees great power in the aesthetic appeal of religion. He cites from religious literature in order to forge a connection to Joe’s story. As a recluse using these images to relate to others is a survival mechanism. Throughout the film, we see Joe and Seligman’s experiences shaped by religion, from their childhoods through their present encounter. Though both deny being religious, both use Christian language and images to tell their stories. Religion as a structuring force doesn’t help Seligman become more empathetic to Joe, but it allows him to feel as though he is. In that way, religion for Seligman is a therapeutic category, allowing him to deny his detachment.
Von Trier’s playing with Joe and Seligman’s notions of the therapeutic and structuring value of religious institutions is also an autobiographical discussion. Having once flirted with Judaism, von Trier has for years expressed some form of Catholic faith. That said, his expressions of faith are often complicated. For example, in 2009 he said, “I’m a very bad Catholic. In fact, I’m not religious in any way. I’m becoming more and more of an atheist.” Here, like in the film, issues of religion are expressed two-fold. In one way, religion remains a fixation for even irreligious individuals, but beyond that, religions represent forms of over-arching psychological landscapes. This again is reflected in von Trier’s own biography considering his conversion to Catholicism rested in his seeing it as a “much more healthy religion than Protestantism.” Reflecting the power that von Trier places in the structural dimensions of religion as it relates to psychology.
Joe eventually seeks out the formal rigor of psychotherapy to replace K’s Catholic discipline. Von Trier seems to have made a similar move. Recent interviews have seen von Trier more interested in discussing his interactions with psychotherapists than his Catholic faith. Still, Nymphomaniac’s therapeutic understanding of religion and investment in Catholicism as effective treatment is quite provocative.
In the language of Nymphomaniac’s guiding allegory, this conversion from religion to therapy represents a move westward and eastward for von Trier. While he spoke of Catholicism in terms of therapy and lightness, it still was a move to contain his own struggles with depression. Likewise, while unlike Joe in that he appears to no longer be fully consumed by depression, he still places himself in a seemingly contradictory religious space. He converted to a religion in part for its perceived structure, but also for the transcendent romanticism that he found within it. In that way, his conversion can be seen either as an attempt to enter both the eastern and the western spaces. Or, in other words, this dyad represents a cleaving of von Trier’s own experience into the two rigidly defined spaces of the Eastern and Western Churches.
This construction of two rigid spaces between which one can be lost speaks to von Trier’s own self-isolating form of religion. His faith appears intensely private, with him not mentioning participation in Denmark’s Catholic community. In this way, like Seligman, von Trier’s religion is that of a cloister. In isolation von Trier constructs, and deconstructs a form of Christianity which based on interviews, is not what he expected.
To what extent Nymphomaniac represents a clear autobiographical statement from von Trier remains an open point of discussion. Still the way he relates imagery of Sadomasochism, religion, sexuality, and psychology is the film’s more significant movement. These elements all play into Joe’s and von Trier’s own needs for discipline and structure. Religion and sadomasochism are the means by which psychological forces are contained.
This at times brutal discussion of sexuality and religion represents von Trier’s most forward presentation of his worldview to date. Fans of von Trier’s work will find this discussion a welcome continuation of the issues of anxiety, nature, and powerlessness that have been a constant theme of his filmography. They will also see von Trier at his most open about his faith on screen. For those new, indifferent, or hostile to his work, Nymphomaniac still offers many points of interest. The film finds a way to blend sexuality and religion in an original way that offers thoughtful observations on both. Lars von Trier is aggressive in his construction of this film’s psychological theology, but he builds it delicately. This construction being the film’s highest tittilation.
Ethan Poe is a graduate student in religious studies at NYU. He is mostly focused on issues of contemporary Mormon media. Though, is he is also interested in religion in modern Scandinavian film.