“Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1”: Fishers of Men, Meaning


Lowry Pressly in The LA Review of Books:

It’s funny — and quite telling — that now that von Trier has made an unmistakably Sadean film, the majority of critical attention is focused not on the sadistic but on the allegedly pornographic aspects of the film. Though there is plenty of sex in Nymphomaniac — just not as much in the pared down version distributed here in the US as many expected or hoped for — as in the more transgressive works of Sade, the site of the film’s eroticism is in its discourse, in the telling of the story and not intermittent montages of T&A. Thus, from Juliette: “You have killed me with voluptuousness. Let’s sit down and discuss.” If he could hear the film press titter, surely the Marquis would be rolling (with mordant laughter) in his grave. And given that he was given a full Christian burial against his express wishes, that’s probably not all he’d be doing.

The term “nymphomania” comes to us (or persists, rather) as the result of a Victorian renaming of an ancient construction of female sexuality as psychopathology, which survived even as far as a few editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (It was finally abandoned in 1987.) As a diagnosis, nymphomania was applied to displays of female sexuality that were considered “excessive,” which could mean anything from the harboring of sexual fantasies to being attracted to men other than one’s husband. Like most diagnoses that infer a disfigurement of the subject from observations of her behavior, it tells us more about the society that came up with it than about nymphomaniacs themselves. Nymphomania reminds us that what we recognize as deviant in others unsettles us. We often find it easier, or at least psychologically safer, to posit a pathological source for the behavior rather than confront it in ourselves.

More here.