Uma Thurman on ‘Nymphomaniac,’ Lars von Trier’s Alleged Misogyny, and Women’s Sexual Double-Standard
Revenge is a dish best served cold.
It’s one of the most celebrated proverbs in popular culture, referenced by everyone from Don Corleone in The Godfather to Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The saying is also inextricably linked to actress Uma Thurman, the cognoscente of cinematic revenge.
There was her memorable turn as The Bride, the bloodied-beaten-and-left-for-dead protagonist of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, with the proverb serving as the film’s title card. And in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, the first in a two-part psychosexual odyssey, Thurman plays another vengeful spouse—only this time she’s swapped bloody samurai swords for verbal daggers.
Thurman is “Mrs. H,” a mother of three whose husband has found himself under the spell of the titular sex fiend, Joe (Stacy Martin). He’s so enchanted by her youth and adventurousness between the sheets that he leaves his family. All of this is news to Joe, since he’s but one of eight men she has sex with per day. Her hump-life is so busy she’s forced to devise a scheduling system to avoid booty call-overlap.
One day, Joe’s treated to a bit of a shock: Mrs. H and her three children arrive at her apartment. They’re there to shame Joe and the philandering husband. The mother, children in tow, demands a tour of the apartment, including what she calls “the whoring bed,” announcing, “Come children, let’s see daddy’s favorite place!” It’s a fantastic, uncompromising, and viciously awkward episode, and Thurman throws her entire being into it, exhibiting the full spectrum of human emotion over the course of seven uninterrupted minutes. It is, without question, the highlight of Vol. I.
“It’s the call dreams are made of—when a brilliant, auteur director calls you and asks you to work with him,” says Thurman, glowingly. “I had just had my baby, was three weeks post-partum, and I read the script which was mind-blowing, and my part, which was a juicy, semi one-man show and a movie-within-a-movie, and it seemed like the right thing to do.”
She’d never met the controversial Danish filmmaker, but was familiar with his oeuvre—one that many film scholars have criticized as being misogynistic for the way his female characters are seemingly degraded and brutalized on camera, from Bess (Emily Watson), in von Trier’s breakthrough film Breaking the Waves—the unwilling participant in numerous sexual encounters with various men, which she then recounts to her paralyzed husband with the hope of keeping him alive, to the repeated rape of Nicole Kidman’s Grace in Dogville. Thurman isn’t onboard with the “misogynist” claims.
“He’s a very provocative filmmaker, but he writes women with more depth and respect and complexity than most writers,” she says. “The idea that people debate whether he’s a misogynist? People should debate whether people who don’t even write women are misogynist. The fact is, he’s dedicated a large portion of his artistic life to the exploration of the female psyche—good and bad, light and dark, shadows, textures. The fact that he’s dedicated a huge part of his talents to that, to me, defies the concept that he doesn’t have respect, interest, and genuine compassion in women. People should question writers that don’t even give a damn about a female character. They are the misogynists.”
She describes von Trier as “a beautiful man” blessed with “an incredibly sensitive soul” and “a good, dark sense of humor.” And it’s true, von Trier has, since the ‘90s, dedicated the bulk of his career to crafting complex female characters. He even, through his company Zentropa, distributes porn films aimed at a female audience, including the 2005 crossover hit All About Anna.
The character of Joe in Nymphomaniac is a fascinating one, to say the least. “I discovered my cunt at age 2,” she (Charlotte Gainsbourg, older version) says in voiceover. Joe enjoys the sexual sway she holds over men, toying with their preconceived expectations in order to satisfy her appetite. In one episode, she and a pal dress in what they deem “fuck me” clothes, board a train, and try to have sex with as many men as the can over the course of the trip. Winner gets a bag of sweeties.
When I ask Thurman if Joe strikes her as an “empowered woman,” she pauses.
“It’s a dichotomous depiction,” she says. “She’s a woman who has the empowerment to follow her impulses, is not repressed, and perhaps feeling all the things eating away inside her and not having the courage or audacity to be herself. At the same time, I think it’s an unbelievably complicated depiction of self-loathing; an inability to feel.”
There’s also the age-old societal double-standard when it comes to women and men who enjoy sex, which Thurman believes is part of von Trier’s message here—that the woman is unfairly branded the submissive slut, while the man is lauded as the celebrated conqueror.
“The suppression of the female in the patriarchal society and the switch from what we believed to be a matriarchal society to a patriarchal society is all historical stuff,” says Thurman. “The subjugation of women is historical, and biblical. We’re all still trying to unwind from this oppressive persecution. Progress has been made, but things change rapidly and they also change very slowly. Pope Francis, ten days ago, probably made one of the most important statements of my lifetime when he retracted the Catholic position against homosexuals, and became accepting of people of different interests and religions.”
She pauses again, realizing she’s gone a bit off-topic. “It’s something that is part of the human condition, and something that all women have had to struggle with at one point in their lives, and that all women have been very traumatized by during their ‘coming-of-age.’ All women have been through being treated quite poorly as they come of age, and the male experience is quite different.”
There’s an entire chapter in von Trier’s Nymphomanic devoted to Thurman’s character, entitled, “Mrs. H,” who gets to live out every “woman scorned’s” fantasy—to show up at her husband’s mistress’s apartment with the kids, and raise hell. As a viewer, the scintillating, vitriolic turn by Thurman as the woman scorned—her most electrifying performance in quite some time—seemed to come from somewhere deep within her being, and one can’t help but recall untimely demise of her marriage to actor Ethan Hawke, which bore two children (it ended amid allegations of infidelity on Hawke’s part).
When asked whether or not the role—and her performance—was cathartic for her in any way, and whether she was exorcising any demons, she says, “I felt like I was coming back to work. The character has an incredible arc in one seven-or-eight minute scene. When we filmed it, it was about a 20-minute scene, but I got to do more acting in that 20-minute journey on camera than sometimes you get in a whole movie.”
But Thurman’s most iconic character is still The Bride—a.k.a. Beatrix Kiddo—who exacts a roaring rampage of eyeball-yanking, limb-slashing revenge on The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.
As far as a reunion with Tarantino, who refers to Thurman as his “muse,” for Kill Bill Vol. 3, she says it’s not happening in the immediate future.
“I’ve spent many hours of my life working with him, and I treasure all the memories,” she says, “but I think not, currently, though you never know. It was always his intention, but I think his creative development has him enmeshed in many other things.”