With Nymphomaniac, director Lars von Trier challenges audiences’ preconceived notions of what cinematic sex should look like. What results is something revolutionary in terms of gender and sex in the modern entertainment apparatus. What makes this film so significant and timely is that it subverts gender notions – or rather eliminates them altogether – and delves into the nature of sex and desire. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe is the protagonist, who enters the complex world of sexual intercourse and erotica early on in her life, from competing with her friends for male attention to losing her virginity to Shia LaBeouf’s “bad boy” character Jerôme.
Such a blunt portrayal of female sexuality is rare in mainstream film. Most films depict female sexuality as a delicate counterpoint to the cavalier nature of male lust. Here, we get a woman who experiences the callousness and self-loathing traditionally associated with male sexuality as a result of her recursive desire for non-committal relationships.
Sex in the modern cinema can be gratuitous or vaguely poignant. Usually we get quick cuts of exposed backsides and caresses of the skin, montages of ambiguity and idealized body visuals. On the other hand, there’s just nudity and provocation for the sake of it. With more shows like HBO’s “Girls,” which has been noted for its frank depiction of sex, and films like Nymphomaniac being produced, sex on screen is becoming more realistic, and thus more complicated and honest.
Often in film, we are led to see fornication as either stimulating or romantic, depending on the situation. However, being that the gender roles in von Trier’s latest push against convention, it’s difficult to adjust to what should be a mere “fling” or a more intimate session of “love-making.” Either way it doesn’t matter, for sex here is raw and gritty. It’s real and uncomfortable and often grotesque.
Nymphomaniac portrays sexual intercourse as frightening and alien. Paralleling Joe’s rejection of emotional attachment, we as viewers are detached from our cemented reactions to sex. We are now alienated from a very human thing, and our conventions of it are shattered, which brings up some very interesting questions. The contemporary mainstream would never stoop to such bare realism. Furthermore, it’s arguably impossible for anything like it to ever be considered “mainstream.”
Most would assume Nymphomaniac’s method of showing real sex to be gratuitous and borderline pornographic, when really it’s not a very enjoyable or erotic type of sex that is being depicted. It’s something that is deeply affecting and unsettling, and says a lot about society and human psychology.
It further subverts cinematic conventions of sex by not just showing lust as something condemnable, but rather as something that can truly transform someone. It gives a human quality to the types of “whores” and “temptresses” that are always shoved aside to make room for the purity of romance and “true love.” von Trier presents intricate and still very much human alternatives to these mainstream motifs in Nymphomaniac, discarding gender-based and sexual stereotypes while doing so.
It seems that dramatic portrayal of sex is becoming less inherently or noticeably “dramatic,” for a more honest alternative to filming the primal act is emerging and gaining prominence. With unique television programming – that is, the ones that can get away with such explicitness, like HBO and Showtime – the possibilities for sexual behavior and gender orientation are becoming more expansive and, above all, believable.