Joe: It’s my own fault. I’m just a bad human being.
Seligman: I’ve never met a bad human being.
Joe: Well, you have now.
Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I (2013) stages a confessional narrative; a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin) recounts her erotic experiences to the man who saves her after a mysterious assault.
Joe is preoccupied by guilt, she sees herself as a ‘bad’ person because of the way she has expressed her sexuality. The sections of her life she reveals to us, then, are skewed to present her in a deliberately dark light. Von Trier structures the film into five chapters or episodes in Joe’s sexual experience. Ranging from losing her virginity to tentatively falling in love, it charts the rise of her obsessions but also focuses solely on them.
The action in flashback is accompanied by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s retrospective voice-over narration. Gainsbourg’s voice performance is captivating, especially when laid over Von Trier’s trademark use of images inter-cut with action.
Yet, Michel Foucault argues that confession is a “power discourse” in which the confessor is empowered by his position to “judge, punish, console and reconcile”. This is in some ways true of Joe’s confession which has a therapeutic dimension. While not asking Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) to forgive her, in fact she often wants to shock him, she is seeking to unburden herself by intimately sharing him what she has experienced. It has been suggested that Nymphomaniac I presents a misogynist view of female sexuality, and I would argue that this confessional discourse underpins this idea. There is an inherent voyeurism to Joe recounting her sexual experiences to a man. While Seligman tries to comfort her, comparing her natural desires to the metaphor of fly fishing in a stream, in her mind she is still confessing her ‘sin’ of desire.
However, Nymphomaniac I was much less sensationalist than the media hype made out at the time of its release. The orgasmic poster campaign featuring the lead actors for instance doesn’t really reflect what the film is about at all. Yes, there is a lot of sex, but it is not a porn film. The characters have depth and emotion, especially, and most importantly, Joe herself. So while the outdated nympho label is tagged onto her character, the film explores much more than her adventurous sex life to become a complete piece of art.