It’s been nearly a year since Lars von Trier first teased Nymphomaniac with a series of titillating trailers released on the Internet—a marketing ploy that generated predictable shock, awe, and hype about the Danish filmmaker’s explicit two-part sex epic.
The film tells the story of a woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is found badly beaten in an alley by a gentle, middle-aged man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). She tells him her erotic life story— “I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old,” she begins—over tea in his apartment. As expected, von Trier uses intense sexual realism (pornography with an artful twist) to illustrate Joe’s insatiable lust. But does penetration on camera translate to a realistic portrait of sex and sex addiction?
Rob Weiss, founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute and expert on sex addiction, watched Volume 1 of the controversial film with The Daily Beast—and diagnosed von Trier’s portrayal of “nymphomania.” Warning: spoilers throughout.
The Daily Beast: Von Trier follows a girl named Joe from her progression through adolescence into adulthood. She “discovers her cunt” when she’s two and we see her rubbing herself on a wet bathroom floor at a young age. She never liked her mother—a frigid and inattentive woman—but adored her father.
Weiss: Joe has a mother that was completely unavailable to her. When children experience profound emotional neglect like that from their mother, they have to find some way to self-soothe—pleasuring herself on the bathroom floor, for example. She doesn’t have the capacity to build intimacy or love in relationships with other people—love in the sense of feeling important, special and valued. Sex becomes a coping mechanism.
But her father made her feel special.
We see Joe’s father being warm to her when she’s six or seven years old. But by then, being neglected by her mother—particularly in the first few years of her life—leads her to certain conclusions about life: what do I need to do to get people to pay attention to me? Even when she’s nine years old she says, “I knew it would make my Dad feel better to tell this story even though I’d heard it before.” She’s already a parentified child and taking care of her father.
Is there something bizarre or abnormal about this type of father-daughter relationship, their closeness? Her father catches her poring over a book on female anatomy (specifically the clitoris), and smiles at her, as though there’s an unspoken understanding between them.
It’s not overt but there may be some qualities of covert incest there. In attending to his emotional needs at an early age—taking care of a parent to get her needs met in turn—she doesn’t develop an innate sense that she will be loved no matter what. So she finds ways to self-soothe through pleasure and play, and also by figuring out what makes her father happy.
At 15, Joe asks the boy next door to take her virginity, which ends up being a traumatic experience. The next thing we know she’s on a train competing with her friend to sleep with as many different men as possible.
In that moment she realized her power. That’s a learned experience of a neglected or traumatized child. It’s really about having to adapt to a non-nurturing, disconnected environment where she had to figure out how to have her needs met. And some of them were through self-soothing, some of them were figuring out how to make someone feel good so they would pay attention to her. And then she crafts and perfects those tools in every [sexual] situation she encounters.
Joe's motivations for pursuing sex are puzzling. She doesn’t seem to derive any pleasure, or even much pain, from the experience. She seems numb.
This lack of affect or emotion is very typical of sex addicts. She doesn’t have any sense of worth because it was never given to her. She learns how to get men to want her, and that is much more important than orgasm. Her excitement is in getting men to attend to her—the only way she’s guaranteed that sense of worth. It’s also not uncommon for female sex addicts to gauge their worth on their desirability. So the pursuit of sexual experience is not about pleasure; it’s about being wanted and feeling important. It’s about getting someone to pay attention to you, even if the attention is cold and mechanical, as it was when she lost her virginity.
What sex addicts want is an oxymoron: controllable intimacy, because they don’t want to allow themselves to be vulnerable in a healthy relationship. Sex addicts also choose intensity when what they really want is intimacy. They confuse the two. With Joe, von Trier has provided all the characteristics of a female sex addict and early trauma survivor—an underdeveloped sense of self, failure to thrive in life, and lack of empathy.
After Joe watches her father suffer delirium in the hospital, she says she felt "nothing" when he dies. And yet this lack of emotional sensation manifests in sexual arousal.
It’s common for sex addicts to sexualize their feelings. So while she’s experiencing the most painful moment of her life, she becomes physically aroused. Her body responds to the incredible emotional turmoil and pain she was in, but cognitively she doesn’t have the tools to manage it.
We sense that she’s embellishing her life story, particularly her relationship with Jerôme, the man she is pursuing.
Yes, but that’s not a loving relationship. She’s obsessed with him. But there’s a part of her that wants to be loved. So she chooses someone who is emotionally unavailable because she doesn’t know how to connect in that way.
But when she is finally with Jerôme, they are having sex and she screams that she can’t feel anything anymore.
One of the greatest challenges for sex addicts is the combination of any sexual and loving experience. When she surrenders to someone who she thought loved her, or who she thought she loved, she shuts down because she’s vulnerable. Joe doesn’t care about physical pain, but the fear of this person she might care about hurting her emotionally causes her to shut down.