„Nymphomaniac“: Acts of Profanation

The jurist Trebiatus defines the profane as that which is “Sacred or religious, and is then restituted to man’s use and property,” and this definition launches Giorgio Agamben’s “Eloge of Profanation.”1 The initial movement of pornography, as Agamben writes, was one of profanation, of restitution towards possible usage of the sexual act. Yet its profanation has been rendered powerless in the spectacle which pornography has become, in which not the bodies themselves are being exposed, but as Walther Benjamin writes ‘the conscience of being exposed itself’. And so pornography becomes the ultimate “unprofanable”—an act disempowered, ordered, assimilated, locked into a seemingly unchangeable relation, whose powers of profanation have been neutralized, and thus removed from potential usage by man.

This deviation of pornography’s initial potential changed the pornographic image into the ur-object of a consumption, one which leaves its image digitally intact, bolted into a potential cycle of infinite consumption of the static and meaningless image, an apparatus which has now become so commonplace that this ‘pornographic’ relationship with the image can be extended to any domain (so, one can explore the cuteness of catporn, the wonders of natureporn, the mush of loveporn, and so on ad infinitum).


This lockstep of consumption removes all potency from the pornographic image, a potency restored in this first Volume of Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac, in glorious acts of profanation which liberate the pornographic once again towards the possibility of usage. Although Von Trier’s film is nourished by the ubiquitous pornographic image, it breaks with what could have potentially been its main source, the endless streams of internet porn, drawing its sources rather from the long literary tradition of erotic literature, specifically the literary conventions of the confession, such as erotic confession (Pietro Aretino’s The Life of Courtesans, Josephine Mutzenbacher) or the recounting of the erotic fantasy (The Decameron, Justine, Fanny Hill) are sources for the film’s methods, and provide Lars von Trier the context to return significance to those images.

The confession, the tale, is the very heart of Nymph()maniac. And the fundamental condition for potency in this film, like in all erotic works, is that of a reader or listener with whom an exchange will be established, and who will transubstantiate the titillating word into physical reaction. When Joe, the self-avowed nymphomaniac of the title (a beautifully bruised Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts to Seligman (a clever and mischievous Stellan Skarsgård) the tales of her sexual escapades, Seligman’s listening, the anecdotes he offers up in exchange, his reactions, his imaginings are what empower Joe’s stories.

Besides the numerous explicit references to literature (the film is divided not into parts or sequels but ‘volumes’; the volume itself into chapters; the characters are not called by their names, but by their first letters, a literary convention of the memoire), it is this ritual of storytelling which is most significant. To tell stories is not just an act of speech but an exchange—a game of fantasies, lies, exaggerations, understatements and concealments, whose purpose as Joe mentions is not the story itself, but rather its hearing and its telling. Seligman interrupts Joe because he cannot believe in the coincidental presence of her lover Jérôme as he reappears at an incredible coincidental moment: „No, no“ protests Seligman, “that’s not possible…“ To which Joe retorts, not unjustified: „So what. That’s the way the story goes. And I’m telling it. And that’s what happened. Which way do you think you’d get the most out of my story? By believing in it? Or by not believing in it?“ And believe we must.

The channel opened between Joe and Seligman is the active and dynamic exchange between listener and speaker, a parallel for the same relationship between artist and audience, between Lars von Trier and his viewers. It is the channel of the fantastical tale, the individual legend, the personal myth which allows for, even demands diversions and excursions from the narrative’s authority. There is no imposition of a fiction’s rigid structure and the necessity of a faith (like in pornography), but rather a liberation of this structure into possibilities.

If the tale is Nymph()maniac’s form, the book is its inspiration. Beyond the erotic literature from which it draws its form, Nymph()maniac  is suffused with the literatures of Poe (the Bible of terror), Proust (the Bible of memory), Izaak Walton (the Bible of fishing), all explicitly brought up by Selimgan. It is not only literature proper which plays a role, but as always in Lars von Trier’s films, the pictorial canon is a source of vitality too—from Beardsley’s illustrations of Poe, to medical imagery of female genitalia, to prints of fishing techniques. Not that Nymph()maniac  is ever in any way an adaptation, but rather a continuation and manifestation of this Western cultural history into cinema. This passage of literature and art into film is marked by Joe’s Herbarium, her favorite book and only possession which provides her comfort in the void of her solitude. Although still ‘just’ a book filled with the collected and organized objects of nature, it is the most material manifestation possible of the world within a book, and in this way a symbol for the film too.

Joe’s story is a sexual cinematic memoire, and as memory is the core of the memoire, Nymph()maniac’s ties with Proust (often playful and profanatory) surface most forcefully. As in Proust’s writing, in Nymph()maniac the constant play between the narrator’s remembered fiction and the narrator’s perceptive experienced are inseparably mixed.

This first volume of Nymph()maniac is divided into five chapters: 1. The Compleat Angler; 2. Jérôme; 3. Mrs. H 4. Delirium; and 5. The Little Organ Book. And just like memories in Proust are triggered by his narrator’s state at the time of writing, by the objects present in his room, so too in Nymph()maniac every new chapter is triggered by a material object. The opening chapter which allegorizes sex as fishing is triggered by a fishing-fly Seligman hooked onto the wall; chapter two is set off by the anomalous placement of a cake fork for consuming rugelach; chapter three by a half-hidden portrait of a woman, which will launch Joe into retelling the story of an ex-lover’s wife; chapter four, on her father’s death and delirium, by the Poe book on the night-table; and chapter five by a Bach cassette.

Joe and Seligman’s exchange takes place in the space of memory, but a memory elicited, if not invented by the objects in the room. This circumstantial (or perhaps fatalistic) determination of the narrative through these objects casts doubts on the veracity of Joe the nympho’s story, and this Proustian approach to memory places the film in the realm of play, and outside that of logic.

If Proust’s literature sets the method, it is Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler which draughts the film’s contract. This work on fishing published in 1653 is no more an analytic, scientific work on fishing than Von Trier’s film is on nymphomania. Rather, it is “a celebration of the art and spirit of fishing in prose and verse,”2 stepping outside the bounds of the rational, the psychological, to revel in inventiveness and artifice. And here the film makes its proposition—that of a similar inventiveness, a similar artifice, a celebration of nymphomania as much as of cinema.

This central work of Walton’s provides Seligman, the pensive fly-fisher, with the inspiration to allegorize the human sexual act into fly-fishing, while bemusedly listening to Joe’s tale. Seligman sees a ‘feeding frenzy’ when the men all react to Joe’s sexual provocations; he explains their patterns of response according to the behavior of fish; he relates her aggression towards a man in order to ‘land’ him to an induced take; compares strategies between fishing and sex of the great mystery of “how to catch the big one.”

This metaphor of fly-fishing is a two-way street—the fishing is never just fishing, just like the sex is not just sex, and the story is not just the story—for all have been enriched. It is certainly no accident that this metaphor for sex is initiated by a literal and tongue-in-cheek manifestation of a “fly on the wall,” that (in)famous shibboleth of cinéma verité which is the presumption of an untainted observation; a faith against which Lars von Trier has always rallied, if not outright mocked as he does here, profaning this „fly on the wall“ in his rejection of the assumption of any real reality other than that of cinema.

Because this film is, as all film and all pornography should be, just a game. For it is when pornography is taken literally (think of all those images which literalize the fantasies of Sade or Masoch, without having their political intelligence, philosophical significance, or transgressive form, attempting to emptily recreate in the first degree that which has significance in the second), that it becomes unprofanable. Agamben writes in his eloge on the uniquely profanatory powers of play: „Play liberates and diverts humanity from the sphere of the sacred, yet without abolishing it. The use to which the sacred is restituted is a special use which does not coincide with the utilitarian consumption, [so that] the powers of economy, of law, of politics, deactivated in play, becomes the doorways to a new joy.”

For Joe, too, sexuality enters her life in the form of a game. She masturbates from the incredibly precocious age of two, and is introduced to her sexuality in not-so-abnormal childhood games of bodily exploration with her best friend B, before graduating to more adult ones, as she recounts in the first chapter. Joe and B, dressed up in their sluttiest getups (their fanciest ‘fishing flies’), enter the stream (a train), and compete to catch as many fish as possible, with extra points for hooking those reluctant and wary big lurkers. And the prize for winning? Nothing more than a bag of chocolate sweeties. Joe and B’s predation in the rivers of masculine lust is just a game. There is no aim, no goal, and most importantly no utility. The chocolate sweetie prize is meaningless other than giving Joe and B an excuse to go fishing, just as a tale’s moral is the meaningless excuse for the pleasure of its telling. What matters is not the target, not the number or size of the fish, but the telling itself.

It is a game of memory, and Joe lies in Seligman’s bed, beat-up (we do not yet know why), turning over the cards, looking for a link between the puzzle pieces. And occasionally, Joe is able to fit the fragments together, as she literally does on the way home from work in the subway, stitching together in her imagination the various body parts of men who resemble her first love, Jérôme (a game, which Von Trier realizes on the screen, building a puzzle in Jérôme’s silhouette), in order to masturbate on the packed train.

Nymph()maniac  is replete with such games, not only of memory, of telling, but also of chance. When Joe needs to come up with a method of managing her ever-increasing number of sexual relationships, she relies not on the rational or psychological, but on the random. Joe throws a die to determine her reaction to her various lovers, which have become so numerous that she needs a practical solution to avoid having to remember who is who. And so she rolls a die:  if she lands a one it guarantees her kindness and a second date; a five a tirade of insults; a six, no response at all. Yet, as Mallarmé wrote, a throw of the die will never abolish chance, and the game means always more than arbitrary play. It is a way to links the film’s construction to another way of understanding (or of creating), to the divinatory practices of oracles, which are the ancient originations of all games.

All these practices, the illustrative, metaphorical, and cinematic games Von Trier plays work to deactivate the pre-ordained utility and revitalize the potential of pornography’s usage. In fact, the only profoundly pornographic images in Nymph()maniac  (the ones visually marked by the tropes of pornography proper), are a parody of this unprofanable image. When Joe mentions her “erotic education” we see a smiling Seligman’s series of inappropriate and Balthus-like erotic fantasies of young Joe, dressed as a naughty schoolgirl making inventive use of her classroom props. So the calcified and sacrilized pornographic image is good for only one thing:  a joke.

Although Joe’s nymphomania is a game for us the viewers, for Joe, like for Sade’s Justine, the game turns serious, because she is possessed by a Catholic guilt. Joe believes that her original sin is her incorrigible and endless lust. Although Joe, our storyteller, is a guilty Christian, Seligman, our patient listener, is a happy Jew (Seligman is German for “happy man”). At the very start of their encounter Joe insists upon her moral corruption to which Seligman answers: „I’ve never met a bad human being.“ Offended, Joe answers, „Well you have now.“ Joe’s very Christian guilt is also the unique source of her pleasure, for it grants her the unique pleasure of sinning, this pleasure which re-establishes power over her body as a woman. Joe, the Christian wants to be seen as a sinner, for it is this heresy that empowers her. But Seligman, brought up in a tradition devoid of the concept of original sin, can only take her confessions as “a pleasurable and very humorous story.” For Seligman, there can be no “bad” for there is no satanic power beyond god, for despite his die-hard secularity, his comprehension of the world, inherited from the religion of his forefathers, can only be fundamentally hermeneutic.

Seligman’s approach to Joe’s story is Talmudic:  there is no detail which does not have significance, which his interpretation does not grant significance. Liberated from the burden of guilt under which Joe suffers, his understanding is an act of imaginative creation, and it is his knowledge, psychology, and humor which enriches to Joe’s story.

“How awful it is that everything has to be so trivial,” remarks Joe while relating the tale of her nymphomaniacal being. But for Seligman, steeped in the pleasurable play of creating meaning, of intellectual synthesis, nothing is trivial. Everything can be thought, and everything imagined. Joe, sharing Von Trier’s loathing of the meaningless, poses the ‘problem’ of insignificance, and Seligman, with his infinite Talmudic interpretations, gives the solution:  the trivial remains so only if we allow it to. Which neither Seligman nor Lars von Trier do, imagining meaning in every word every gesture, creating from what Joe guiltily calls ‘a trivial story,’ an orgy of significance.

This fecundity of meaning, just like the fecundity of forms, is one of the foundations of Lars von Trier’s work, in which film has inherited now-defunct Opera’s role as Gesamtkunstwerk—a synthetic correspondence not only between the arts, but also between art and science, between art and thought, between art and ritual (a more appropriate term might be Kino Absolut). Lars von Trier builds a fecund and fluid web of meaning, linking Poe, Proust, erotic literature, Bach, Fibonacci numbers, golden section theories, Catholic guilt, Jewish understanding, critical response, medical photography…

Fecund, but never homogenous. Although there is a constant wealth of sources, influences, cinematic forms and stylistic devices, Lars von Trier could be called the “anti-stylist.” In the creation of this total work of cinema, the forms remain impure and mixed, their differing planes and colors visible like those of a cubist painting. Each space/time in Nymph()maniac has its own color palette (high-key pastels for her father; warm homely yellows browns and burgundies in Seligman’s apartment; saturated colors in her sexual games with B; black and white when her father degenerates into dementia). Each chapter has its own rhythm of montage, its own camerawork, sometimes shaky and Dogma-like, sometimes still and precise. This refusal to take on a single ordered style, this mash-up of all possible styles and forms is a grand act of creative synthesis.

There has always been in Lars von Trier’s films a desire to synthesize everything into cinema. No cinematic law is unbreakable, no tool forbidden, no style sacred. Nymph()maniac  is filled with Kurosawa-wipes, set frames, jump cuts, stock footage, diagrams, illustrations, heterogeneous title fonts, superimpositions, still frames, auto-citations (the Opgang from the hospital in Kingdom), photographic typologies (in this case a humorous pastiche of typologies à la Bernd and Hilla Becher), his infamous shaky camera (never new, but reinvented from the nouvelle vague’s necessity or desire for mobility)… He breaks, with a splendid gusto, the futile cinematic ‘laws’ of line-of-action, of 180 degrees, of the stable image, of controlled zooms, of homogenized style, to create a cinema more agile, an editing more efficient, a temporality more compressed. These cinematic transgressions exist for themselves, as games, as transgressions, but also allow Lars von Trier to liberate the stultified forms and make arising of the infinite possibilities of cinematic space; an aesthetic choice stemming from his execration of the cliché, contempt of the schmaltzy, and refusal to be pigeonholed.

Let us not forget that nymphomania, the disorder, is an invention of the 19th century; a creation of a proposed deviancy from a proposed norm, which allows the social and legal assertion of control and moral order in the sexual realm. And to answer this collective aesthetic, to break apart the power structure in order to release this form into use requires the imposition of an individual aesthetic, which is exactly what Lars von Trier provides in Nymph()maniac’s heterogeneous collection of individual aesthetics. The relation Seligman creates between fishing and Joe’s sexual predation belongs to Seligman’s world-vision alone. The association Joe makes as Seligman brings her a tea and rugelach with a cake fork belongs only to Joe in association with her first love, Jérôme. Joe’s Proustian madeleine of sperm and chocolate is hers just as much as Proust’s is of cake and tea.

This individual aesthetic does not remain within the bounds of the perpetual pornographic pointlessness, but bursts its boundaries so that the pornographic can be once again mixed with death and love and scientific observation and nature or anthropological understanding. A cunt is not just an organ of orgiastic pleasure, but also one of understanding, or of music; a place of birth, as well as that of death.  By granting his characters memories, knowledge, and aesthetics which are all unique, individual, and specific, Lars von Trier attains the sentiment, without ever passing through the sentimental. When Joe asks her father on his deathbed to retell her the legend of the Ash tree’s form, her love and terror does not feel false because it is unique and precise and personal. It is empowered, because it is impure. At the very moment of her father’s death, in a daring gesture of parallel montage, Joe reaches her very first real orgasm as she is being fucked by a hospital employee in the basements of the clinic in which her father dies, the images of his sufferings inextricably mixed with the images of her lust, bound together by her narrative, unique and guilty.

To work against cliché is to work against logic. While talking to Joe, Seligman rhetorically asks, “Why should the sentimental part of religion outlive religion itself?” questioning it, while simultaneously noting its veracity. Seligman, a godless mystic, recognizes the significance of meaning beyond that which rationality can provide him, yet is too modern, too cynical to wish to attest to the existence of a single higher power. Von Trier has always toyed with Satanism, which represents for him that force which opposes the presumed rationality of God with a maddeningly incomprehensible unpredictability. There may be an order to the world, but if it exists, the order is only in the chaos, as Joe remarks humorously about the items scattered across Jérôme’s desk at the moment very she realizes she has fallen in love with him against her will.

This order in Nymph()maniac  is not imposed by the rational upon the world, but is rather a cosmic order which emerges from all things animal, natural, spiritual. In his entire body of work Lars von Trier has always preferred the baroque, for its joys of synthesis, movement, emotion, exuberance, repetition as a counter-action to the linear and logical: the mysterious evil lurking in the bleaching lands under the hospital in Kingdom; the Rat King in Epidemic; the anti-rational states of Melancholia and Hysteria. To move away from logic is also to move away from an anthropocentric understanding and to approach a material and cosmic one. The allegorization of sexual predation into fishing is a vision of humanity which takes place outside the anthropocentric, which treats the human as just another animal with its instinctual understanding and behavior, its social structures and breeding needs; a vision reconnecting the human to the animal certainly, but also to the divine. And to access this divine (one in which Lars von Trier seems to hope for more than believe), an act is required, a re-paganization.

The purest form of porn today is probably the animated GIF, in which a single gesture is looped into a perfect and continuous motion which contains all of porn’s essence. „If to profane signifies a restitution to common usage of that which had been separated in the sphere of the sacred, the capitalist religion in its extreme phase aims to create an absolutely unprofanable […] and that is the potential of profanation that the pornographic apparatus wishes to neutralize,” writes Agamben. And the problem is how to open and dispose this apparatus for a new usage; essentially how to liberate it from its utilitarian aims. That, proposes Agamben, is the secret force of the profanation.

And in Nymph()maniac the profanations abound. First and foremost is the profanation of pornography. As Joe seeks to be fucked as an escape from her father’s delirium and his immanent death, the pornographic images of her having sex are released from their aim of consumption, into new meaning—something unclear to Joe herself—but something which she understands to have been a moment of significance, a paroxysm of sensitivity to the world in which her pleasure admixes with her pain. When Joe wets herself upon seeing her father’s corpse, she uses this event as a sign of irreparable guilt and sin, yet Seligman finds behavioral explanations to everything: „I know you have this dark bias, and think that you are worse than everyone else […] but literature has far worse examples.” Through this profanation, pornography can be de-purified, desacralized. No longer separate from the human sphere in some secret sacrilized cabinet, pornography is brought back and reattached to the human experience: to love, death, desire, shame, philosophy, pain, and most of all, to art.

Not only are the images released from their locked position, but the entire thing, we are reminded once again, is a fiction, an artifice. Lars von Trier profanes not only pornography, but love too (of course). And so Joe’s expresses the height of her adoration to Jérôme not by using that cliché she would loathe, “I love you,” but of transforming it into her own personal expression: “Fill all my holes.”

Profanation in fact seems to be Lars von Trier’s method of approach with his sources and influences. He uses Proust, but profanes the now banalized image of tea and cake into his own provocative image of sperm and chocolate, precisely in order to ‘de-banalize’ that which has lost its use, to profane it.

The apex of profanation arrives in the final chapter, The Little Organ Book, in which all this thought and energy comes together in a triptych which represents Joe’s attempt to perceive and comprehend her world through her sexual experience:  a musical melody composed of the portions of three imperfect lovers to create a greater and more harmonious sexual being.  Von Trier profanes the art and religion from which this Western history of representation originated in his profanation of the triptych, a form originating in altar painting, but here used to expose the musicality of Joe’s numerous sexual relationships, and how they come together into a single harmony of fuck. The god-yearning music of Bach is profaned too, literally, by being broken apart into the various human organs (foot, right hand, left hand) which produce this celestial offering, but also by using its composition as a metaphor. As to be expected, cinema itself is profaned as well, with one of the three triptych lovers represented in a Muybridge pastiche, or through the multiple aspect ratios used in Nymph()maniac (aspect ratios selected for playfulness, rather than the rule of a single ‘divine’ ratio which would be a model of ‘perfection’).

The final profanation, the most secret and difficult one in this film finishing Lars von Trier’s so-called Depression Trilogy is the profanation of his Master whose shadow still looms over his work: Andre Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky, the most spiritual if not religious of directors, opens and closes this trilogy like the parenthesis in the title; Antichristopens with a provocative dedication to him, and here, in Nymph()maniac he is the first person thanked at end of the final credit roll. Despite Lars von Trier’s intense distaste for ready-made images, he can (understandably) not help but be haunted by Tarkovsky’s images, now become sacred (both literally and cinematically), which emerge time and again in his work: the forest and grass in Antichrist, the horses in Melancholia, the algae flowing underwater like the hair of a river in Nymphomaniac. The single pictorial representation in Seligman’s apartment is a Russian icon of Madonna and Child, placing the imagery of influence within the realm of all Tarkovsky’s work, specifically with the sacrifice of Tarkovsky’s last film, and the paintings of his grandest. Possessed by the significance of Tarkovsky’s cinema, a significance born from an absolute faith which von Trier lacks, the director’s last trilogy could be seen rather as the Patricidal Trilogy, each film an attempt to rid himself of his master, knowing that he has not yet escaped from the grandeur of this influence. And this is the ultimate profanation here, a profanation which would release those almost untouchable celestial images of Tarkovsky, to throw off the influence of the master in order to make creation possible, a profanation as necessary as it is incomplete.

Yaron Dahan

Yaron Dahan is an American-Israeli director, writer and film critic. He has made fiction and documentary films funded by the Goethe Institut, Israeli Film Fund Rabinovich and the German Federal Press Office. His films have been projected at festivals such as the San Sebastian Film Festival, Jerusalem Film Festival and others. As a film critic he contributes to MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema and Film International, among others.