by Silu Tang
This essay will examine the film Nymphomaniac and its plot and character developments in light of several existentialist works.
Nymphomaniac is a drama film written and directed by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. The film opens on a cold winter evening. An elderly bachelor and scholar, Seligman, finds the protagonist Joe beaten up in an alleyway. He brings her home, tends to her wounds, and asks about her life. Over the span of four hours, Joe recounts the development of her sexuality from early childhood to the age of 50.
Lars von Trier coined a new term for the film’s narrative style: digressionism. Joe finds inspiration in objects in Seligman’s home and these objects spontaneously inspire the titles and themes of each of the eight “chapters” of her life story. Sporadically during Joe’s narrative, Seligman interjects intellectual tangents relating to current moments of the story, offering interpretative insights into Joe’s personal experiences.
Joe begins with her fascination with her own genitalia at the age of two. This fascination quickly escalates and dominates her life. As a teenager, Joe loses her virginity to Jerôme, a random man with whom she had no relationship. In the years to follow, she engages in a complicated and fitful relationship with Jerôme while sustaining an incessant slew of other lovers. However, after a violent confrontation with Jerôme, Joe realizes the harm she has inflicted upon herself and others. At the end of the film, Joe vows to conquer her nymphomania.
Although the film largely concerns Joe’s sex life, it is hardly depicted in an erotic way. In fact, Joe’s apparent struggle with her sexuality demonstrates her difficulty in accepting herself as “a being for-itself” who wills freedom for herself and for others.
THE STATE OF ABANDONMENT
The film’s narration follows Joe as she matures from childhood into middle age, just as the story chronicles Joe’s development from ignorance to acknowledgement and acceptance of her moral responsibility in this world. Joe is born with her abnormal sexuality without her having asked for it. Throughout the majority of the film, she simply discovers it and becomes entrapped within it. “Man’s unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first been a child… The child’s situation is characterized by his finding himself cast into a universe which he has not helped to establish, which has been fashioned without him, which appears to him as an absolute to which he can only submit” (de Beauvoir 35). Indeed, Joe lives like a child for most of her life, affording no values and admitting no consequences to her actions. In this way, Joe merely exists within the confines of her sexuality as a facticity into which she has been cast.
As Joe passively walks through this world, she falls prey to sadness when she realizes the meaninglessness and absurdity of her life. She compares her life to her routine walks through the woods, always starting at the same place, always following the same path, always finishing at the same place, signifying nothing. She correlates this restless motion with the movements of a caged animal, as the film displays a clip of a lion pacing in a small cage. She says “basically, we are all waiting for permission to die.” Attempting to fill the void, Joe turns to sex. Sex becomes Joe’s defense mechanism against the unpleasant and bleak reality of her life. To cope with her distant mother, whom she describes as “a cold bitch”, Joe engages in a competition with her friend B to have sex with train passengers.
To cope with witnessing her beloved father’s delirious and violent death, Joe naturally lubricates and has sex with several hospital workers. As Joe tells this portion of her story, she confesses that she feels tremendously ashamed of having lubricated, because there is obviously nothing erotic about the death of her father — a nymphomaniac Joe may be, her sexual desires have never been incestuous or necrophilic. However, we understand that this seemingly disgraceful reaction results from Joe’s tendency to find escape in sex.
In the film, Joe develops a habit of saying “fill all my holes” when having sex with Jerôme. This can be understood in the literal and metaphorical sense — sex is Joe’s way of filling the emptiness in her life. At the end of Chapter Five, Joe loses all feelings in her genitalia, yet her sexual exploits not only continue, but rather intensify in the following chapters. This is irrefutable evidence that Joe has sex not for the physical pleasure, for she cannot feel any, but rather for the escape from facing her condition of “abandonment”.
And when we speak of ‘abandonment’ – one of Heidegger’s favorite expressions – we merely mean to say that God does not exist, and that we must bear the full consequences of that assertion. Existentialists find it extremely disturbing that God no longer exists, for along with the disappearance goes the possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There could no longer be any a priori good, since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive of it… This is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does (Sartre 29).
Joe, just like everyone else, is condemned to be free and must confront the responsibilities that come with that freedom. Yet she refuses to acknowledge her freedom; she prefers to remain safe in the infantile world where she may “do with impunity whatever [she] likes” (de Beauvoir 37). She loses herself in sex in order to avoid acknowledging and accepting the burden of the responsibility for her being.
FREEDOM OF SELF
At the beginning of the film, before Joe begins telling her story, she confesses to Seligman “I am a bad human being.” We might also say, with Simone de Beauvoir, that she is a “serious man”.
The thing that matters to the serious man is not so much the nature of the object which he prefers to himself, but rather the fact of being able to lose himself in it… [He] has the necessary instruments to escape this lie [but] does not want to use them… [He] consumes his freedom in denying them… He dissimulates his subjectivity under the shield of rights which emanate from the ethical universe recognized by him; he is no longer a man, but a father, a boss, a member of the Christian Church or the Communist Party (De Beauvoir 47-48).
Indeed, the nature of Joe’s sexual activity truly matters very little – despite the variety and eccentricity of her narration and Seligman’s eclectic digressions. The only thing that matters to Joe is the fact of being able to lose herself in that sexual activity. She truly does have the necessary instruments to escape, but she does not want to use them yet – in “Chapter Seven: The Mirror” she has successfully abstained for three weeks and five days, and yet she elects to declare, “I love my cunt and my filthy, dirty lust.”
In Chapter Two, Joe has her first encounter with love. She claims she loves Jerôme, and she describes this feeling as an obsession with his strong yet delicate hands and a desire to be picked up and put down by him like an object over and over again. It is tremendously revealing that Joe should refer to her desire to be treated like an object as “love”. For love is what is most desirable; love is the purest form of ecstasy. And what is most desirable for Joe, what brings Joe the most pleasure, is escape from her freedom.
Joe falls into a crisis when she realizes she has lost all feelings in her genitalia at the end of Chapter Five. Unable to experience sexual pleasure again regardless of her numerous strenuous attempts, she begins visiting K, a professional sadist. K makes it clear at the very beginning of their interactions that there will be no sex. During Joe’s many visits, K ties her down, abuses her, and dehumanizes her. On Christmas Day, Joe has an orgasm for the first time in a long time after receiving a brutal beating from K. Again, this is clear evidence that Joe’s obsession is not with sex, but with refusing to be human, with refusing to accept the responsibilities of being human, with reducing herself to an “in-itself”.
She denies her freedom and dissimulates her subjectivity. She is no longer a human being; she has reduced herself to an object, an in-itself, a nymphomaniac.
The in-itself is an unconscious mode of being. The in-itself is solid, self-identical, passive, and inert. It simply is, the way an inkwell is an inkwell and the way a glass is a glass. But Joe, who is a human being, is not an in-itself and cannot simply be a nymphomaniac. She is simply “acting her part” as one. This is what Sartre calls “living in bad faith”. Joe is lying to herself — she is at once the deceiver and the deceived — about the truth of her being.
FREEDOM OF OTHERS
Not only does Joe dispense of her own freedom, she also has no regard for that of others. In this way, Joe is also what de Beauvoir calls an adventurer.
The man we call an adventurer.. remains indifferent to the content, the human meaning, of his actions and thinks he can assert his own existence without taking into account that of others… Indifferent to the ends they set up for themselves, they were still more indifferent to the means of attaining them; they cared only for their pleasure and glory (de Beauvoir 61).
For as much as Joe thinks she has no place in society, she cannot escape the reality that she is a part of it. She refuses to take into account the existence of others.
In Chapter Two, when Joe first “falls in love” with Jerôme only to find he has left to marry another woman, Joe fuels her longing for him by constructing her own Jerôme out of familiar body parts and belongings of strange train passengers. To Joe, Jerôme is no more his own person than he is an object onto which Joe projects her own desire to escape from the harsh reality of her abandonment.
To cope with the loss of her “first love”, Joe retreats back to her indulgent and overly erotic lifestyle. Joe claims that “it is not easy being a nymphomaniac” because juggling the logistics of arranging meetings with up to ten lovers daily can be difficult. Over time, she has developed an algorithmic method to ensure not one of her lovers discover the existence of her other lovers. On one occasion in Chapter Three, Joe mistakenly causes one of them, H, to leave his wife for her. The distressed Mrs. H arrives uninvited at Joe’s home, attempts to demonize both of them in front of her children, and eventually exists the apartment screaming in mental breakdown. As Joe recounts this episode, she claims that this barely affected her in any way. Why should it? She has no qualms about ruining the H family, because she remains indifferent to the destruction of the family and the sufferings of its members. She cares only for her own pleasure.
In Chapter Five, Joe and Jerôme meet again by chance years later. Their old love rekindles; they conceive a child together and start a family. However, despite Joe’s “love” for Jerôme, she chooses gaining satisfaction from K, the professional sadist, over her wifely and motherly duties. When eventually Jerôme addresses this problem with her, Joe decides to leave and never see her family again. She chooses to forsake the duties she once undertook when she married Jerôme without considering the consequences her desertion may bring upon Jerôme and her son. In this selfish way she objectifies others for her own attempt at satisfaction and fulfillment.
In this way, Joe is not unlike Don Juan, seducing and exploiting gullible women for one night and then abandoning them to indulge his insatiable passion. Albert Camus regards Don Juan as an existential hero.
For him it is a matter of seeing clearly… [Love] is not the same for another person. I do not have the right to cover all these experiences with the same name. This exempts one from conducting them with the same gestures. The absurd man multiplies here again what he cannot unify. Thus he discovers a new way of being which liberates him at least as much as it liberates those who approach him. There is no noble love but that which recognizes itself to be both short-lived and exceptional (Camus 552).
Don Juan is a hero because he loves each woman wholeheartedly, even if only for one night. Therefore each night, each woman receives a profound gift anew (Camus, 548).
Here, Camus is wrong, just like Joe. “Don Juan [is] unaffected by Elvira’s tears” (De Beauvoir 61). Camus neglects to acknowledge Elvira’s tears. Indeed, no single person defines love the same way, and precisely due to this existence of different subjectivities, one cannot herald Don Juan a hero because he completely disregards the subjectivities of others.
In the same way, one cannot possibly warrant Joe’s actions as benign because she has heedlessly trampled upon the freedom of others. Joe is truly an adventurer.
The turning point of Joe’s story occurs in “Chapter Eight: The Gun”. When she finds out that P, her monogamous lover at the time, has cheated on her with Jerôme, she feels genuine pain caused by other human beings for the first time in her life: two people whom she loves betray her together. This emotional pain is manifested through the physical abuse both Jerôme and P inflict upon her. Upon seeing Joe again after she heartlessly left, Jerôme viciously beats her then penetrates P in front of her in the same way he took Joe’s virginity. P urinates on her, and then they leave. Laying in the dark damp alleyway, beaten up, reeking of urine, and deeply humiliated, Joe finally has an existential revelation, or what Sartre calls an “abrupt awakening to good faith” (Sartre 373). Joe is in anguish.
Joe realizes that she is not only the individual she chooses to be, but also a legislator choosing what humanity as a whole should be. She realizes finally that her actions are not encapsulated within a vacuum, but rather affect every other human being as much as their actions have affected her – the way she has rejected society, the way society has rejected her, the way she has abandoned Jerôme, the way she has used P, the way they both gain revenge on her. Joe is condemned to be free. She has been cast into this world with her sexuality, with the full freedom to do as she will, with full and profound responsibility for the consequences of her actions upon herself and upon others.
Up until this point, Joe has only existed. From this point forward, Joe defines who she truly is. She has found her “soul tree”, a twisted and deformed oak on a barren hill, reaching towards the sky against all odds. According to Joe’s therapist in the anonymous sex addict support group, only one in a million successfully rid themselves of their sexuality both mentally and physically. Joe’s addiction and the destruction it has caused have become very clear to her. And despite its impossibility, Joe has committed to ridding herself of her sexuality. She says “I will start up against all odds just like a deformed tree on a hill. I will muster all my stubbornness, my strength, my masculine aggression.” All her stubbornness, her strength, and her masculine aggression had once been the facticity into which she was thrown. But now she will in turn muster it to conquer what has once enslaved her.
After Joe finishes telling her story, she announces that she is tired and wants to go to sleep. As she drifts off, Seligman climbs into her bed with his pants off, attempting sexual intercourse. Joe reaches for and racks her gun as Seligman protests and justifies his actions. Joe kills him, grabs her things, and leaves the apartment. Despite the film’s apparently shocking and wretched ending, Joe’s story closes on an optimistic note. For a nymphomaniac whose entire life has been defined by having sex with countless men, the fact that Joe denies a sexual advance from a man signifies her commitment and perhaps even a small triumph in her quest towards recovery.
Camus, Albert. 2004. The plague, the fall, exile and the kingdom, and selected essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
de Beauvoir, Simone. 1976. Personal freedom and others. In The ethics of ambiguity. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2007. Existentialism is a humanism [L’Existentialisme est un humanisme]. Trans. Carol Macomber, ed. John Kulka. New Haven: Yale University Press.
———. 1956. Self negation. In Being and nothingness., 369. New York: Philosophical Library Inc.
Von Trier, Lars. 2013. Nymphomaniac, eds. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia Lebeouf, Christian Slater and Uma Thurman, ed. Zentropa EntertainmentsMagnolia Pictures (accessed 11/15/2014).