What is it about sex that leaves so many films teetering perilously between the pornographic and the parodic? Maybe because it is one of the few activities to actually rival cinema, less a subject among many others than a rival medium. It asks people to act on their fantasies, usually takes place in the dark, can involve looking and role-play, pulls people into their bodies but aims for a blissful loss of self. To adapt the old quote, making a movie about sex is like dancing about architecture — a redundancy, both too much and never enough. Good sex, anyway. Bad sex restores cinema to full representative powers. Bad sex — which is to say, empty, compulsive, spiritually-deadening sex against graffiti-strewn dumpsters by the light of a thin, existential dawn — is something the camera excels at depicting. In fact, we are in the middle of what some might called a bad sex renaissance. What started with Hannah Horvath having her face planted into the sofa in the first season of Girls has spread like a damp patch to the sticky sheets against which Michael Fassbender grimaced and rutted in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), Mark Ruffalo speed-dialled Estonian call-girls in Thank-you for Sharing (2012), Joseph Gordon-Leavitt made love to his porn collection in Don Jon (2013) and Leonardo di Caprio got humped with candles in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The figure of the sex addict has become for the indie-auteur sphere what the serial killer was for mainstream thrillers in the 1990s: a repeat offender, plot driver and sensation source, drawing audiences with a mixture of curiosity, skepticism and blimey-mate astonishment.
This week, comes one such masterwork, Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I—in many ways the Kane of bad sex movies, in which Charlotte Gainsborough, or her body doubles, including one with the delightful name of Eljira Friss, is pinned against headboards, dirty mattresses, kitchen tables and train-lavatories to blasts of Teutonic industrial-hard-core while Von Trier swings his camera from thrusting buttocks to bored face. “I’m ashamed of what I became, but there’s nothing I can do now,” she tells the middle-aged academic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) to whom she is narrating her story and who interrupts her to launch lofty digressions on fly fishing, piano chords, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and Bach. "That's a very clear parallel to fishing in a stream," he yelps excitedly upon hearing that she and her friend competed to seduce men on a train. “Those are Fibernaci numbers!” he exclaims upon hearing that Shia la Boeuf took her virginity with three thrusts, then five, in the basement of a gutted building. This leads, as it so frequently does, to a discussion of polyphony and the cantus firmus in work music of Johann Sebastian Bach, as Von Trier splits his screen three ways to view Joe being taken from behind by one lover, given a jungle-cat–style mauling by another, and licked all over by Shia LaBeouf in a third, although if the Transformers star had outsourced the job to one of his robot friends we might have really been in for something special.
There’s a deliberately specious feel to this, like Bart Simpson’s sarcastic homework, as if Von Trier were mocking the tendentiousness with which the European art-house has served up sex under cover of metaphysical speculation — Antonioni’s pensées on alienation and lingering shots of women’s legs, Fellini’s mixture of Jungian sublimation and cleavage. The film is all about its frames. If it had been shot in France, or Von Trier’s native Denmark, it would have been a less provocative beast, but Von Trier’s single masterstroke was to set the whole thing in some unspecified Euro-capital, and have everyone — La Boeuf, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater — speak in wobbly British accents, upping the propriety levels, and pushing the film towards teetering, Pinteresque comedy, as the actors flip their non-sequiters back and forth across railway compartments and breakfast tables. “For me nymphomania was callousness,” croaks Gainsborough in her best Kate-Moss-on-tranquillizers tone, as if advertising a new scent — Sex Doll, perhaps. “We were committed to combating the love-fixated society.” A sensation-seeking nihilist, Joe has sex the same way Von Trier makes movies: to keep the wounds open and salted. His interest in a return to psychic health is precisely zero... What’s most interesting about the film is the tension between its bristling air of art-terrorist provocation, and the clear nostalgia, left over from Von Trier’s previous film, Melancholia, for the older, more humanist forms of centuries gone: the music of Bach, the novels of Edgar Allen Poe, the penny dreadfuls of the Victorians, which drew readers with promises of lewdness under cover of concern for the nation’s youth. Maybe not so much has changed after all—the Victorians mixture of sentimentalism and moralism is not so alien to the era of Dr Drew, VH1’s Behind-The Music and Celebrity Rehab. Von Trier’s fondness for the formal structures he has long since detonated, is, in some senses, the oldest story in the book. Guess what? Cinema’s enfant terrible misses his parents.