Nymphomaniac: also: gender at the expense of race

I have a piece out in Mute magazine called “sex against gender” (it was going to be “‘whoring’ against society”, but there were concerns about my being read as implying that all sex is prostitution, scare-quotes or no scare-quotes). Anyway, it’s a review essay on Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac I and II and could also have been called “One woman v. Therapy” or “anti-Scheherezade”. ​That’s because, at ​several point​s​ in it I tr​y​ to tie in the gender, capitalist familiality and sex thematic ​in​ th​e​ film​s​, the latest in the ‘Depression trilogy’, with the present resurgence in anti-psychiatry discussion groups in the UK​.​ (​S​ee The Institute for Precarious Consciousness article posted by Plan C – ‘Theses on Anxiety’ – and the great response piece at sometimes explode as well as related reading groups and events (LeedsLondon 1 and 2Manchester 1 and 2​.​) Otherwise I just focused on the compelling way in which Nymphomaniac demonstrates the necessity of insurrection against gender.​ I’d be thrilled to know what y’all think.​ But one thing I ended up leaving out of my piece was the question of Nymphomaniac’s glib and explicit white supremacism. So I’m putting ​brief notes on all ​that​ stuff​ here, on my blog. Content warning for provocative racist terminology and, well, florid racism.nymphNN What’s the race case? Anyone who’s seen the films will know, as one scene in Volume II is pretty unforgettable and unforgiveable. ​In that second part of Nymphomaniac we at one point find von Trier hammily using Charlotte Gainsbourg as a ventriloquist’s dummy for his views on ​the​ democratic courageousness of​ us​ing the word ‘Negro’​ i.e. (I kid you not) “calling a spade a spade”​.​ The word, ​being, you know, a censored term for the truth​,​ is supposed to be a parallel of ​the film’s​ eponymous, also ​”not-politically-correct designation for the pathology of female sex addiction, which ​Gainsbourg heroically​ reclaims​ in a therapy circle​.​ “Er, we like to say sex addict…”​ says the group leader. No, Gainsbourg asserts, tearing up her therapy confessional: “I am a nymphomaniac!”​​ Needless to say, ‘nymphomaniac’ and ‘Negro’ are far from analogous signifiers. Any fool should understand why that is, so it feels a little bit like feeding the trolls to go in to it.

Maybe one ​should simply call von Trier’s bluff​: if it’s​ really​ ‘like for like​’​, ​then we can surely​ expect an upcoming trilogy devoted to cosmo​​logies of raced subjectivity​: a film on afropessimism and/or the experience of Black woman-ness. ​I’m not holding my breath, however. It’s obviously a​ppalling​ that saying ‘Negro’ ​has been defended ​in a mainstream film by a sympathetic​ celebrity​ subject, ​while exactly that kind of parochial, ‘free-speech’-ist, right-populist Ukipian toxicity is materially on the ascendant. ​It is perhaps too mild to say that von Trier is out of touch for making his feminist heroine a mouth-piece for yet another Cannes style ​joke, intended to bait ​liberal​s, perhaps, but doing so at the ​expense of people currently being targeted by neo-fascist policies across Europe. ​Because obviously it ​isn’t just content, it’s form. ​All of this is a response to the Cannes 2011 Q&A incident that got von Trier banned​.

But the film doesn’t just say ‘Negro’, and declare that “a point of honour” (actual quote): it of course inevitably enacts ‘Negro’, too. We’re faced with frames in a motel room, full of huge black cock, as though the human beings in question are in the film in order to enable Gainsbourg’s comments about speech democracy, rather than the other way around.  That the brief scene is an exoticizing, gratuitously provocative figuration of two African men as ‘Negroes’​ is ​unmistakeabl​e​​. It’s a scene that proclaim​s​ to the viewer in that all-too-familiar libertarian way ‘No, you’re the racist!​’​ even as it casts porn actors Kookie and Papou under the name ‘N’ ​(most characters in Nymphomaniac get initials, i.e. P, L, B, but ‘N’ was obviously saved for these two) ​and defies us to stare at their penises.

Why ​we​ren’t porn actors ​chosen​ to represent any of the dozens of ​​white men we see Gainsbourg fuck? Still, there’s ambivalence about Papou and Kookie’s cameo. If one anticipates excitement on the black men’s part about the white protagonist’s request for sex (made via an interpreter despatched to the street corner), one couldn’t be more wrong. She describes them as angry and “quarrelling”, but their tutting, head-shaking, gesticulating pantomime seems like more of an excuse to luxuriate, naked, in their mutual admiration of each other. Their behaviour to the white woman standing between them, whose face they never look at, whose gaze they never seek, whose vague and patient curiosity does not concern them, whose clothes they haphazardly remove, ​is ​so impersonal ​that it shocks white audiences. It seems intended to convey the animal or sub-social​, but it retains an authentic and autonomous ‘excess’​. Their extensive, uncaptioned conversation with each other could be, to those who don’t speak it (of which I am one) in any of the “African languages” or none. ​Gainsbourg walks out of the motel room, not so much because they can’t seem to get their double-penetration act together without offending each other, but because her sexuality is not roused by unapologetic blackness, or by not being the focus of any attention. ​​

A​ key aspect of ​the ​Nymphomaniac­​ production team’s​ self-advertisement its prurient publics​ (i.e. the way it produced those publics for itself)​ was ​to explain that they maintained a neat segregation​ both on- and off-set​ between porn actors and ‘actors’.​ ​This was a news-worthy separation ​of labour forces, it was said, because state-of-the-art digital technologies w​ere​ going to mediate​ it​. While the idea was, consciously or unconsciously, trailed, of Shia Labeouf’s actual cock sliding into actual celebrity pussy (but whose?) in cinemas across the globe, the ​production company ​Zentropa​’s​ ‘Making Of’ clips are, by contrast, remarkably reserved. Stars describe the porn set vs. movie set divide as two irreconcilable worlds. Stacy Martin says she always left the room when the porn actors came in to work (“I don’t watch porn, so …”) and Charlotte Gainsbourg speaks of her anxiety about what would be construed as her body. ​Zentropa’s little-known porn production side-line was not publicly talked about.​ 

So, Zentropa doesn’t just make edgy high-profile mainstream-‘art’ cinema, it makes actual porn and employs porn stars on the regular. ​​That’s the context in which I wanted to know: what language are the only one-name entries on Nymphomaniac’s IMDB, Papou and Kookie, speaking? What are they actually saying​?​ Is there a twist there, and were captions ever made? To inquire on the internet about this, though, is to gather that nobody knows or care​s​. Communication being “impossible” was the kick Gainsbourg’s character​ (thought she possibly)​ wanted, so it is OK that it necessarily becomes ours, too. In the end, the brothers’ abortive “sandwiching” of “one or the other of my holes”, while not successful in ending her phase of frigidity, serves usefully to expand white horizons, revealing “a world far from mine I had to explore… and there, or perhaps on the other side, get my life back.” After the narrative shows how she ​slipped away, practically unnoticed, ​from​ this quasi-explicit neo-colonial hook-up, leaving them to—she speculates​ as our rapporteur​—berate each other for not having been sensitive enough towards one another’s cocks,​ which were​ tangible “through the tissue”,​ Gainsbourg states ​laconically ​that “women who claim that Negroes don’t turn them on are lying”. Lying because in society, she says, “we elevate those who say right but mean wrong, and mock those who say wrong but mean right”. ​It’s a statement  that pretends to represent, but which actually distinguishes her from, all  (other) women. For while declaring how all women like black cock, she’s never looked less turned on in her life. Scratch a plain-talking maverick democrat and you find crypto-fascist contempt for people, paired with a bored and cynical certainty that they know the simple secrets of what people are like.​ “Joe” (the heroine) is confused, apolitical, and occasionally reactionary, but her powerful dialectical life-struggle in and against gender makes her somehow sympathetic.

Maybe a better film-maker could have shown how misogyny and white supremacy are inter-imbricated, thus, her attitude to ‘N’ could have been integrated into her internalised gynophobia. Instead, racism does not appear as a visible force or a theme in Nymphomaniac, which seems to honestly think it is itself ‘not racist’. It degrades the film when she defies the scholarly father-figure jocularly chastising her for saying ‘Negor’. A​nd it is von Trier hiding behind this “she”.​ ​I feel like saying to Lars: ​dude, you would fear worse than ‘mockery’ for trying to pass off your thoughtless opinions as courage ​when​ making light of structures of real and continuing oppression. ​Anyway,​ it’s significant​ too, ​that after the motel, ​her next port of call ​in ​​her quest into ​th​e unconquered territory of the​ “other side” is transcendental pain, sans safe-word​.​ ​Leaving behind Papou and Kookie *(‘N’) she seeks out the services of communicative, implacable white dom Jamie Bell​ (‘K’)​. In the aforementioned back-stage interviews, it is possible to breach the topic of this exotic weirdness and this submission, including the vexed question of its consensuality; but nowhere is it thought that (inter)viewers would want to pinpoint the ​race-“play” of the motel room DP scene. All are fascinated with other ethical dimensions of Nymphomaniac: yes, she uses men, yes, she gets what she needs from them, but​, hey, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have feelings for them, ​you know, this film makes you feel really broad-minded and, like, tolerant, ​and so on. Race, meanwhile, is the only dimension ​of the only men of colour she uses​ that is made visible. ​

It occurred to me at this point that a piece could be written that points how Nymphomaniac stages “gender against​ race” or gender at the expense of race.

The ‘call a spade a spade’ project isn’t even courageous enough to properly épater les bourgeois. In the series of promotional photographs of the Nymphomaniac’s cast, which captured different portions of one larger, staged, humorously risqué tableau of them ‘all’ embroiled in divers sexual kinks and perversions, the inclusion of two well-hung Black men would have neatly referenced an infamous genre in porn. They should totally have been there. The promo tableau features, for instance, two nipple-like cherry ice-cream swirls gripped by Nicholas Bro, who looks voyeuristically into the open trench-coat of Connie Nielsen. A nearby Willem Dafoe enjoys a spillage near his fly being dabbed at by Sophie Kennedy Clark, while Stellan Skarsgard’s groin is crushed by Mia Goth’s boot and Jamie Bell holds some paper towels in the background inches away from von Trier himself, who is gagged (a Cannes reference, again), holding a camera-phone. In the foreground we have daddy, i.e. Christian Slater, on bended knee, ostensibly preparing to bathe the flaunted genitals of Gainsbourg, the adult incarnation of his daughter, who as everybody knows tunelessly sang “Un zeste (inceste) de citron” with her bare-chested real father, Serge, in 1985. As long as it’s white people, then, incest is fine on a movie promo poster. But Papou and Kookie are not in the promo. ​

Generally, I think that the ​​aware-of-my-racism-and-comfortable-with-it school of film-making (​another gross recent example I noted was Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths) is neither, in any substantive sense, aware of its racism, nor comfortable with the inkling of its racism it does possess. More than that, it is more hypocritical than the establishmentarian hypocrisy it purports to assail; it ends up flattering and accommodating it. For all that von Trier enjoys thinking of himself as a free spirit, a trickster who can reference Albert Speer as an artistic inspiration in a press​-​ room full of puffed-up liberals, ​but ​he makes sure the ‘Negroes’ are cleared off the screen pretty quick​ and never appear in any promotional campaigns​. ​Having flashed their big dicks at us, he can then get​ Joe​ involved in the much less challenging (for von Trier) world of intimate domination ​where she​ gets tied down and whipped by a hard-faced white man until her flesh is in tatters, an image that ironically recalls Patsey in Twelve Years a Slave. ​​Someone should really pass von Trier this list.​ Image

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