Portrait of a failed psychoanalysis10/10
NYMPHOMANIAC is the most exciting, intelligent film I have seen in a long time. The moment I saw Seligmann shuffle out of his apartment to Rammstein, I knew I was in the hands of a filmmaker I could trust. This scene was the first of many at which I found myself exulting inside. GO, LARS, GO! NYMPHOMANIAC is von Trier's F-14 and he takes it on bombing run after bombing run, destroying a different pious hypocrisy each time. The film is full of all sorts of audacious touches that no other filmmakers working today have the guts or brains to include in their boring, sentimental, ideological films.
NYMPHOMANIAC is also very funny.
What I liked best about NYMPHOMANIAC was its total refusal of the consolations of ideology. Sexuality is presented truthfully, which is to say, as something which simply cannot be integrated into the smooth social order without one or the other being damaged. No one in the movie has a "healthy" sexuality. In a certain sense, the nymphomaniac herself is the closest thing to a healthy person in that she refuses to adhere to any of the hypocritical moral orders represented by the other characters, from conformism to abstinence to impotent cognitive-behavioral therapy to S&M to crime and so on. She is a stain no matter where she goes and in this sense she incarnates the truth, which also has the status of a permanent stain.
At the same time that von Trier does everything right, he gets everything wrong, but in the best possible way. NYMPHOMANIAC reminded me of the book that OJ Simpson wrote in which he describes how he would have killed Nicole and Ron "if he had done it". What OJ wrote is a confession in scare quotes, one in which every detail is present except the most important one, namely, the actual acknowledgment of guilt. NYMPHOMANIAC has the same structure, although instead of being the story of a murder, it is the story of a psychoanalysis.
A troubled person on a bed is encouraged to speak to a learned, wise, benevolently neutral man who is sitting next to the bed. She is encouraged to tell her whole story. He will refuse judgment and simply listen.
Over the course of a psychoanalysis, patterns and unlikely coincidences slowly take shape and are spotted by the analysand, who eventually comes to recognize them at their true value, namely as the traces of an emergent repressed discourse. Lars von Trier has brilliantly condensed and rendered this process by making Joe's story full of improbable coincidences. How much of this really happened and how much of it is a delusion? Could she really have run into Jerome so many times? Could she really have had a vision of the Whore of Babylon as a pubescent girl? Etc.
The sex life of Joe starts and ends with the exact same scenario: 3+5=8. This circularity is also characteristic of the psychoanalytic process. An analysis reaches its conclusion when the analysand recognizes that she has done nothing but repeat, again and again, her own contingent, sexualized unconscious interpretation of a traumatic encounter. By superimposing this sum on the screen, von Trier condenses and renders visible the fundamentally signifying, even meaningless kernel of the compulsion to repeat trauma that Freud called the death drive. Joe's analysis comes to an end when she is able to witness how insubstantial and senseless her compulsion is. All tied up, right?
And then Seligmann tries to have sex with Joe! At this moment everything crumbles. The moment he whips it out, Seligmann invalidates the nascent story that has begun to emerge from between the lines of her official story. The fragile consistency of this new liberating interpretation of Joe's story is entirely dependent on Joe's confidence in Seligmann's ability to see clearly where she can only dimly intuit. His actions prove to her retroactively that he heard nothing but her symptomatic demand to be used, and in so doing he symbolically annuls her true desire.
Such an ending is a logical necessity in that Seligmann's "asexuality" is completely hypocritical, as is Joe's decision to renounce her sexuality. Here we see why a psychoanalyst must go through analysis himself: if he does not, he can only validate the patient's resistances. Since Seligmann has not integrated his own sexual drives, he is incapable of leading Joe to such an integration. All he can do is lead Joe to his own failed neurotic solution: a refusal of sexuality. But Joe incarnates the intractable stain of truth, which is also the stain of sexuality, and as such she necessarily explodes Seligmann's hypocrisy.
It all holds together. Where von Trier gets it all wrong is in his implicit condemnation of psychoanalysis. Here von Trier is properly perverse. His entire movie is a truthful "confession" and then, like OJ, he winks and tells us that it was all hypothetical. This last act of resistance invalidates everything that came before it, conveniently rendering the exercise sterile and allowing Joe/von Trier to continue ignoring the truth and enjoying their symptoms. In Joe's case, the symptom is nymphomania. In von Trier's case, the symptom is his gratuitous melancholia, his nihilism. Were he to take the quotation marks off of his confession, he would risk facing the consequences of his act, namely freedom with all of its attendant complications and miseries.
Lars walks us right up to the edge and then fails to take the last decisive step. I do not think that this failure takes anything away from the film. On the contrary, this final gesture transforms the film from a poignant depiction of psychological suffering into a meta-depiction of the attachment to this suffering. This is even a necessity, inasmuch as psychological suffering itself always has, by its very nature, such a double structure.