“Fill all my holes.”
Early in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Young Joe (Stacy Martin) coos these words to one of the countless men she has sex with during the two part, 241-minute opus of depravity. While what she’s saying carries a clear erotic charge, her bluntly literal instructions aren’t a come-on so much as a desperate plea for fulfillment. As Joe relates her life story to the overeager stranger Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who found her lying in an alley near his home, what was first intended as a simple request for comprehensive penetration evolves into a tragic refrain, with the unsubtle subtext that might be expected from a filmmaker who has the word “fuck” tattooed across his right-hand knuckles. Joe is suffering from an incurable sense of incompletion. Loneliness, she tells Seligman, has been her constant companion. That simple admission confirms Nymphomaniac’s role for von Trier—this is the film that binds his work together. These are his confessions.
A serial self-mythologizer whose gifts for inflating his own legend are on par with Werner Herzog’s, von Trier has never wasted an opportunity to build his brand. His career has been defined by cultish doctrines, informal trilogies, priceless soundbites, and obvious periods of hero worship. (Has there ever been a less-needed title card than the one dedicating Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky?) His techniques insist that he’s inextricable from his films, and always has been. He starred in 1987’s Epidemic (as a version of himself), awarded himself a cameo as a Holocaust survivor in 1991’s Europa, then let his increasing notoriety take over. Audiences no longer have to see von Trier in his films to see von Trier in his films.
New films by idiosyncratic auteurs are invariably received as opportunities to recontextualize their previous work, but Nymphomaniac is unique among von Trier’s films in how transparently it coheres and demystifies his artistic vision. He’s often accused of being reactionary (a fire his new film stokes with a smirk), and it’s a severe understatement to say his body of work is stylistically diverse, but Nymphomaniac is a perfect lens for examining von Trier’s career because of how it reveals the consistency of his neuroses and obsessions.
Played as an adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Joe is the platonic ideal of a Lars von Trier heroine—not the sum total of his much-discussed, often misunderstood women, but rather the polyphony between them, to borrow from Nymphomaniac’s vocabulary. Joe is defined, driven, and ultimately betrayed by her yearning for a bond that slips further out of reach the more aggressively she chases it. All von Trier’s previous characters are prisoners in their creator’s obsessions, but Nymphomaniac uses Joe’s experiences to renovate their jail into a panopticon. Through her tireless quest to be made whole, the sufferings of von Trier’s past heroines come into focus.
The need for escape: Lars von Trier and his protagonists
Lars von Trier only has one protagonist, and Nymphomaniac is her story. The heroines of his “Golden Heart Trilogy,” (the informal triptych Breaking The Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer In The Dark) are punished for their virtues, while the women in the Gainsbourg era (Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac) punish themselves for their vices. But all of them—including Grace from the unfinished “U.S.A.” trilogy (Dogville and Manderlay) and the bumbling male leads of von Trier’s Danish-language films—are united by the same terrible loneliness. They’re isolated by internal idealism and external morality, but most fundamentally, they’re isolated by their bodies. The variable that makes each new von Trier film such an exciting addition to the corpus is how his protagonists try—and invariably fail—to conquer the crushing solitude of being human.
All von Trier’s protagonists are trapped inside themselves. Some want to get out, but most want to bring others in. His filmography is an index of failed break-ins and escape attempts. Each of his characters leans on at least one of civilization’s most commonly prescribed tools for people trying to eclipse their bodies: sex (Breaking The Waves, also almost everything else), community (Dogville, Manderlay, The Idiots), fantasy (Dancer In The Dark, Epidemic), ritual (Melancholia), and madness (Antichrist). At one time or another in her life, Joe leans on all of them.
Von Trier’s regard for the human form as an oppressive cage has been evident since his first feature, 1984’s Element Of Crime, a neurotic noir in which a detective tries to hypnotize his brain out of his body to relive an unsolved serial-killer case. It wasn’t the last time von Trier used hypnosis as a narrative device, but his auteurist ascent and his intensifying obsession with female protagonists coincided—for a filmmaker so concerned with the permeability of the human body, the vagina is a far more helpful sex organ than the penis.
Escaping bodily isolation: NymphomaniaC and Breaking The Waves
1996’s Breaking The Waves was the turning point, and still the clearest prelude to Nymphomaniac. Bess (Emily Watson) is a wild-eyed young woman who grew up in a Scottish Calvinist community, isolated from the world’s supposedly corruptive influence. God is her only true confidant, but her relationship with him resembles Sméagol’s relationship with Gollum—she’s so squeezed into her own frame that even God can only reach her from within. (Especially since women in her community aren’t allowed to speak at mass.) Nymphomaniac divides religion into “the church of suffering” and “the church of happiness,” but Bess is a reminder that von Trier has never worshipped at the latter.
Sex convinces Bess that she’s been absolved of loneliness, but while her body allows her the fleeting sensation of unity, it also separates her from Jan, the horny new husband (Skarsgård again) she relies on to relieve her solitude. When Jan is paralyzed by a work accident and begins pushing Bess to have sex with other men to vicariously sustain their intimacy, she says, “If I die, it’ll be because love cannot keep me alive.” Then she’s gang-raped to death. Her death denies the body’s potential as a mechanism for love; instead, it’s the cruelest expression of love’s limitations. Bess is only able to affect change when she’s miraculously absorbed into the heavens. Perhaps the biggest difference between Bess and Joe is that Joe never gets to die.
Escaping from bodily failure: NymphomaniaC and Dancer In The Dark
“Fill all my holes.”
Joe first repeats her mission statement shortly after she’s finally achieved something that could be mistaken for happiness by reuniting with her initial, most persistent squeeze, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf). She says it with a smile, right before he jams his tongue into her mouth. Moments later, as they fuck, she spontaneously loses all feeling in her vagina. Deprived of sensation, her body—once her conduit for sexual pleasures—has suddenly become an effigy of her loneliness.
“Fill all my holes,” she says again at the start of Volume II, pleading to an exhausted Jerôme as she writhes on top of him. “I can’t,” he says, his penis still penetrating her. No one can. Physical pleasures disguise the body’s smallness, and their absence reveals it. That’s why Joe’s suffering is immeasurably intensified when she loses her orgasm at the end of Volume I. Her lack of desire reflects her lack of satisfaction, forcing a confrontation between the banality of sex and the abstract longing for fulfillment that has always made Joe “demand a little bit more of the sunrise.”
It’s also why illness is the most isolating feeling there is, the truth at the core of her story. When Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) leaves her unfaithful husband with Joe and predicts Joe’s future loneliness, Joe admits she was right, and remembers a childhood operation where she waited outside the surgery room, watching the preparations: “It was as if I had to pass through an impenetrable gate all by myself. It was as if I was completely alone in the universe, as if my whole body was filled with loneliness and tears.”
“Nymphomaniac isn’t about sex, so much as about what we can’t get from it. It isn’t about coming, it’s about coming undone.”
Selma (Björk), the protagonist of von Trier’s millennial masterpiece Dancer In The Dark, is his first heroine to be so clinically cut off from the world by her own body. A single mother with a dangerous factory job and a degenerative eye condition, she escapes her personal hell through classic American musicals. Blindness isolates her and makes her helpless. (Crucially, she has perfect vision in her daydreams.) At the film’s tragic end, Selma’s vivid inner life finally breaches the real world, as she sings, “I should have known I was never alone.”
Escaping with bodily failure: NymphomaniaC and The Idiots
Where Selma’s ailment forces her to see beyond herself, Karen is a more common variety of von Trier heroine, in that she consciously debases her body to relieve her loneliness. The heroine of 1998’s The Idiots, Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) just pretends her body has betrayed itself, finding solace in acts of perverse solidarity. After fleeing her family to cope with the death of her baby son (a von Trier motif is born!), Karen is adopted by the titular group, a commune of disruptors who “spaz” (read: pretend to be mentally and/or physically disabled) in public places, desecrating their bodies to free society from its fear of self-expression. Their mission, vague and visceral, is significantly less important than the fact that they execute it together.
It’s a valuable precursor to the ritualistic behavior of subsequent von Trier characters. Thirteen years later, von Trier described the hollow marriage of Melancholia protagonist Justine (Kirsten Dunst) this way: “Is the emperor wearing any clothes at all? Is there a content? And there isn’t. And that’s what Justine sees every time she looks at that fucking wedding. He isn’t wearing anything. She has submitted to a ritual without a meaning.” He could just as easily have been speaking about The Idiots’ public displays, or why Joe funnels so much friction into her vagina that her clitoris is eventually rubbed raw.
But Karen isn’t interested in the dogma—she takes to spazzing because it engenders visible sympathy from perfect strangers. When Karen spazzes in front of her own family at the end of the film, she’s effectively conceding to von Trier’s point, but also suggesting that even without meaning, rituals beat the alternative. Unfortunately for Karen, she’s the only true Idiot left.
Escaping into community: NymphomaniaC and Dogville
Nymphomaniac pointedly evokes Karen once in each volume—teenage Joe has her coven of anti-love crusaders (“Mea vulva, mea maxima vulva”), and adult Joe makes an ill-advised attempt to join a program for sex addicts, in which a group of women gather in a circle and communally process their shame. Bess had her Calvinist sect, Karen had her Idiots, Selma had her Sound Of Music cast, and Joe had her girls. Naturally, her connections don’t last. She’s disenfranchised from her sex society because the members fall prey to the promises of romantic love, and she grows hostile toward the women of her sex-addict program because their explicit intention is to deny the thing that brought them together.
Joe, sickened by their efforts and more alone than ever, proclaims, “I am a nymphomaniac, and I love myself for being one. But above all, I love my cunt, and my filthy dirty lust.” At the same time, by this point, there is nothing Joe hates so much as her cunt, which now generates only pain, and has disfigured her search for fulfillment into a perverse quixotic quest—she’d rather bend over for a thousand men than tilt at a single windmill. Joe concludes, “Society had no room for me, and I had no room for society,” returning her hopes to her body and paving the way towards a harsh comeuppance in the film’s final chapter.
Joe isn’t the first von Trier heroine to be spurned by a society that tried to exploit her “vice” as an expression of its virtue. Dogville, the 2003 film he intended as the first installment of the “U.S.A.—Land Of Opportunities” trilogy, limits a classic story of failed assimilation to the confines of a barren black-box theater, which stands in for the eponymous Rocky Mountains town. An acetic yet thoroughly American tale, Dogville follows mobster’s daughter Grace (Nicole Kidman) as she flees the violence of her father’s business and takes shelter in a small community that von Trier has stripped of everything but its people: The houses and objects that define the collective are all invisible. Grace seeks refuge in Dogville because there’s supposedly safety in numbers, but as the consequences of harboring a fugitive grow increasingly severe, the townspeople demand more from Grace to justify their risk. It’s only a matter of time before they reduce her to sexual servitude by preying on her loneliness, revealing their moral rearmament to be as theoretical as the walls of their houses.
Dogville appears to explore how the desire for quid pro quo offers the illusion of community, but by the end of the film, von Trier has pulled the rug from under that idea: Grace’s experiences instead suggest that the desire for community results in the illusion of quid pro quo. Von Trier gleefully sets fire to the illusion, as Grace burns Dogville to the ground, ridding the earth of the same self-denying hypocrisy that Joe rages against before abandoning her support group. Von Trier’s heroines make crucibles of their loneliness, but Grace and Joe both illustrate how he often reserves his most damning fates for people who underestimate the severity of those heroines’ suffering.
Escaping from pretense: Nymphomaniac and Antichrist
Nymphomaniac pointedly revisits most of von Trier’s visual styles and settings (except the digital chaos of Dogme 95), with some chapters compounding them. (The film’s “Delirium” chapter transposes Epidemic’s gnarled monochrome over The Kingdom’s sanitized hell.) But his Antichrist reference is even more overt. The film’s nameless protagonist (also played by Gainsbourg) loses her son when he falls out a window while she’s distracted by sex. The same fate almost befalls Joe’s kid while she’s off getting a beating from her sadistic partner K (Jamie Bell), but Jerôme lifts the infant away from harm in the nick of time.
Nymphomaniac repurposes the exact incident that triggered Antichrist’s mad loneliness to show how self-contained Joe really is, how fundamental her solitude must be if the need for feeling surpasses her concern for her child’s safety. Jerôme reacts by leaving with their son, and Joe immediately returns to K for a vicious thrashing that gives her an intense orgasm. Pain has become her last vestige of human connection, constricting her world to her nerve endings. “Are we alone in the universe?” von Trier once asked himself in reference to the cosmos. “We are, but no one wants to realize it.” His films systematically deny their characters any other conclusion.
Escaping himself: Nymphomaniac and von Trier’s illusions
Part of the reason Nymphomaniac feels like the true apotheosis of von Trier’s career is because of how completely it embraces his trollish nature. Now that he’s retreated from doing press, he’s fully sublimated his trickster persona, which often made his interviews so enjoyably unhelpful, into the soul of his work. While everything from the film’s title to its orgasmic promotional campaign suggests otherwise, Nymphomaniac isn’t about sex so much as about what we can’t get from it. It isn’t about coming, it’s about coming undone. Von Trier is coercing viewers away from his true meaning, like a bored child who waits on the side of a road just to point lost tourists in the wrong direction.
Joe is as unreliable as the man who wrote her. Her subjectivity is a subject of the film, from her myopic self-diagnosis (“I was an addict out of lust, not an addict out of need”) to how she cobbles together her story from details she spots around Seligman’s apartment, like a feral cross between the Marquis de Sade and Keyser Söze.
As a result, Nymphomaniac is inevitably von Trier’s most literal film, bluntly distilling his career’s central themes to their absolute essence. Where he used to be opaque and elusive, Nymphomaniac suggests he’s amused by his own logorrhea—storytelling is often reduced to a matter of showing vs. telling, but in Nymphomaniac, the two are engaged in an outright war of attrition. For every anecdote Joe relays to Seligman, he’s ready with a parallel explanation. He sees Joe through the vast network of human culture, ascribing episodes from religion, history, and the arts to her story. But the precedents he cites are thwarted by Joe’s personal feelings of loneliness. Being reminded that she’s a small part of an epic latticework doesn’t make her feel less alone, it just gives her suffering a scale.
Von Trier has said, “The subject of everything I have been doing has actually been the clash between nature and the mind, if you will.” Nymphomaniac makes that admission redundant. Seligman’s endless digressions evoke a line from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness Of Being: “A single metaphor can give birth to love.” Nymphomaniac replies that a thousand metaphors can likewise make love impossible.
Escape from von Trier’s solitude: Nymphomaniac as a summary statement
“Fill all my holes, please!”
Joe’s mantra is repeated for the last time from the alley where Seligman finds her, bleeding and broken at the loneliest moment of her life. Four hours earlier, von Trier revealed her as a pile of flesh, alien and unknown. Once viewers know the ridiculous details of her history, she becomes more relatable.The more laughably sordid her account becomes, the more normal her pathos appears. A film that began with Joe fucking her way through an entire passenger train—shades of a pornographic Snowpiercer—has wilted into a simple saga of loneliness, lust, and jealousy—in other words, a love story. The first time Joe asks for more from the sunset, her florid self-diagnosis is played for laughs. The second time, it’s soberingly clear that she’s never asked for anything else.
Joe’s journey, and the wry reversal with which it ends, makes Nymphomaniac the second consecutive von Trier film to resolve in oblivion. And yet, the void of its final minute reveals so much of what he’s always tried to show his audiences. On the one hand, it confirms that Melancholia—in a classic bit of von Trier playfulness—is ultimately his happiest film: His characters all transcend their bodies and merge together in a gorgeous apocalyptic bang. Von Trier is never to be trusted, but Melancholia’s last shot is so conclusive that even he can’t dance around it. As he confessed in the interview included on the film’s official website: “[The opposite sisters] melt together. They have been two, and they become one.”
But the shadows of Nymphomaniac’s denouement shroud the upside of Joe’s experience. Von Trier may be something of a sadist, but his movies always end with a kernel of optimism. Even poor Selma dies knowing her son will receive an eye operation and be spared his mother’s fate. Joe disappears into the void after the ugly resolution of her conversation with Seligman, but his definitive actions guarantee that von Trier’s clash between nature and the mind doesn’t end in a stalemate. Nature wins, as it always does, and Joe is returned to the confines of her body, as she always will be. Once she realizes once and for all that she’s alone in the universe, her pursuit for happiness can truly begin. In that sense, the blackness of Nymphomaniac’s last minute is practically a seance for von Trier’s past characters, who transcended their bodies only in order to collectively possess Joe’s. One woman carries them all inside of her. They’re still alone, but at least they’re finally alone together.