Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac

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Lars von Trier’s most recent film, the two-part and four-hour-long Nymphomaniac, was immediately labelled “pornographic”, thanks to an aggressive promotional campaign, which for months had been releasing short teasers featuring the most controversial elements in the film. These were intended to shock – not only with the (inaccurate) implication that actors were having sex “for real”, without body doubles; they also suggested how much kink was going on in the film, like the strong scenes of S&M. Combine that with the allegedly radical feminist statements about female sexuality and von Trier’s lately discovered love for the spiritual meditations of Russian director and mystic Andrey Tarkovsky, and you arrive at the most irritating intellectual kitsch imaginable. Von Trier, a director who courts controversy on and off screen, obsessively reads his reviews – and every scene of Nymphomaniac is constructed as if to refute all possible criticisms that may arise in the era of omnipresent internet commentary. He keeps his viewers contemplating the ridiculous (ripping off Tarkovsky and a half-dozen other greats) while waiting for a glimpse of depth from this master of manipulation.

Still, Nymphomaniac the finished product seems to confirm a tendency in “radical” films that contain strong sex scenes: despite the huge amounts of nudity and actual sex going on, the film is spectacularly unsexy, emotionally sterile and almost comically non-arousing. Indeed, being a product of the popularisation of hardcore pornography, the film finally, even belatedly, brings it to the mainstream and – in some ways – to its logical end.

In Nymphomaniac 40-year-old Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who discovers her secret desire at the age of eight – first in an eerie scene where she and a friend are sliding, pants down, on a slippery wet bathroom floor; then, even worse, depicted by von Trier as levitating and experiencing orgasmic communion with the Madonna and Child while masturbating in a rural field. The rest is supposed to be an exploration of female sexuality – freely and without conservative slut-shaming. Joe fucks everything that moves and with an admirable generosity – quantity is here always posed above quality – and we accompany her in this sexual odyssey. She becomes a scholar of her own sexual organ: she even goes to study medicine to explore it better, but soon realises that this medical approach doesn’t satisfy her, and goes through hundreds and hundreds of men. The story is neatly packaged: we meet her when she has been severely beaten, before being taken care of in a nice flat by the charming old bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who is virginal and harmless. Like a modern Scheherazade, she tells him (or makes up as she goes along) her life’s story.

Yet there are limitations to this comforting image. Joe is very vocal, often irritatingly so, about the importance of her freedom – she talks a lot about something that we might say should rather be done than discussed. Her love of freedom makes her contemptuous of any idea of PC, which she rejects as hypocrisy. But while we listen to all of those praises of freedom at any cost, we almost hear von Trier talking through Joe, again – and replying to his critics, stuffing his words into the heroine’s mouth even at the turning points of the story.

The film balances between a neat Sadeian catalogue of perversions packed in sterile interiors, where each is being tasted by Joe with scientific curiosity (a source of comedy), and real suffering: we are to believe that by choosing masochism as fulfilment of her pleasure, Joe is not really humiliated by her male dominatrix (played by a wonderfully ingenu Jamie Bell) but in fact experiences the fullest orgasm to date (lesson for us: don’t think in conservative stereotypes etc). But then she really does suffer: after years of constant sex, her body is deformed; due to her sexual curiosity she loses her family and is then terminally humiliated by ex-husband and young female lover. In fact, the film was praised by some critics – for example in Catholic Poland – as an honest depiction of how satisfying all of your desires in a world of moral relativism ends (tragically, of course), containing the nasty message of moralistic conservatism and misogyny.

Von Trier’s last three films – Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac – set themselves in opposition to the previous three: Breaking the Waves, Dancing in the Dark and Dogville. These earlier films, which we might call the Trilogy of Saints, all centre on a sensitive young woman who, in order to prove her goodness, goes through hell and then is brutally killed or raped. In Dogville, for instance, Nicole Kidman plays a beautiful woman on the run who hides out in a small village in the American Rocky Mountains but is exploited and abused by her adopted community. The newer films are the Trilogy of Bitches: they purport to reverse the scenario, appearing pro-feminist, brave and even radical in their take on patriarchy and misogyny. In Antichrist, a woman (again played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) becomes increasingly violent and cruel towards her husband after the death of their son; in Melancholia, the intense depression of Kirsten Dunst’s character drives away her husband and is mirrored by the presence of a rogue planet, on a collision course with Earth, which threatens to destroy all living things.

In the Saints Trilogy, von Trier positions women as holy masochists and absurd altruists, desperately submissive to the extent that they almost beg to be beaten or mistreated, devoted to the abstract idea of “helping others”, even if that comes at the price of their pain, humiliation or even death. The films even suggest that their kindness results from a sort of of mental disability (a subject von Trier often dwells on, playing up to his role as enfant terrible of cinema). But the Bitches do everything in reverse: they’re shameless, they consciously hurt others, are violent against men and the people they care for, put their ambition above anything, are narcissistic and self-absorbed.

Yet both portrayals belong to the same moral matrix: in either case, women are unable to fulfil their destiny or to find happiness in a positive, self-affirming way. Nymphomaniac’s Joe, for instance, may seem devoted to pleasure, but she becomes a martyr to the cause. One sequence is titled “The Eastern and Western Church” (one of the film’s many clear allusions to Tarkovsky and the Soviet director’s fixations). The Eastern Church symbolises joy, the Western pain and alienation. Yet Joe is to discover that her way to joy lies through pain; utter objectification and depersonalisation at the hands of her (highly paid) sadist perpetrator. To achieve it, she has to abandon her child, for which she had no obvious motherly feelings. Something similar happens in both Antichrist and Melancholia: the female central characters are shown to be incapable of love.

The three new films also all try to turn Christian ethics on their head. In Nymphomaniac a woman who abandons her own child becomes a kind of anti-Mary. In Antichrist the female character, a scholar of medieval witch-hunts, realises a belated revenge on the male kind for all the harm caused by men across history. In this way Chaos reigns, because the natural order of the world is male, so its reversal must result in nature’s implosion and general Armageddon.

But, if morality is under question – the traditional concept of motherhood, for instance – what is being proposed as its replacement? In Antichrist and Melancholia, von Trier seemed to be sketching a kind of anti-ethics – of reversed violence in the former and the acceptance of depression and non-desire in the latter. If the characters can’t be happy, it’s in a way because they’re like gods. They’re testing this new anti-ethics and are also its victims.

The problem is the interpretation of nature – in the first part of Antichrist, woman was possessed with the desire to destroy everything that was ever created by man, like Medea, killing her own children. In Melancholia, the destruction is inflicted on the whole world. Also in a way the main character, Justine, is to be blamed; her depression and “uselessness” to society – she has no husband, no children, she despises sex – for which she blames herself, are shown to be acts of terminal narcissism. Justine is a nightmare of contemporary culture, a woman who in the eyes of the world has everything – a good job and handsome husband – but doesn’t want anything but to die. Yet was von Trier saying anything so profound? It later emerged, disappointingly, that the idea for Justine’s character came to him after he experienced a depressive episode of his own.

At the press conference for Melancholia at the Cannes film festival in 2011, von Trier caused outrage when he commented that he could “understand Hitler”. Even if it was a slip of the tongue (he later apologised for the comments – and then, later still, “retracted” his apology) it shows how von Trier looks at humankind with a mixture of contempt and ferocity. That’s why, despite promising to challenge patriarchy and misogyny, films like Nymphomaniac are superficial and their characters clichés. His films leave space for craft, wit and humour – like in Melancholia, where the planet set to hit earth is called Depression – yet it’s hard to find any compassion, to find what might give life to his already joyless characters.