Naked truths: newcomer Stacy Martin and Shia LaBeouf in Nymphomaniac.
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Oops! I did it again: Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

The sexual exploits of Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin, are depicted without modesty - but the film stops short of being pornographic, tempered as it is by comedy, provocation and grim detail.

Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (18)
dir: Lars von Trier

Most of us have experienced at least one catastrophic “Did I say that aloud?” moment but we are all Kofi Annan compared to Lars von Trier. Though he has been making films – and waves – for 30 years, he has scarcely been heard in public since the press conference for Melancholia at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. There, he greeted a question about his heritage with an answer that began, “I thought I was a Jew for a long time …” before proceeding to a revelation (“I understand Hitler”) and ending with the announcement: “OK, I am a Nazi!”

The organisers declared him persona non grata (he was still proudly wearing that slogan on a T-shirt at the Berlin Film Festival this month). Though he made an apology, he quickly retracted it. “I think that anything can be said,” he has insisted. His lack of an internal censor and his attraction to the taboo are among the characteristics that make him a bracing director, so we shouldn’t be surprised if these slosh over the sides of the films like hot tea spilling from cup to saucer.

The idea of an artist who puts all his scalding material into his art, the better to lead a more harmonious existence, is a comforting one but it doesn’t apply to von Trier, who has struggled most of his life with depression. That subject was broached directly in Melancholia, in which a woman’s despair finds its mirror image in the end of the world. Yet the most potent streak of autobiography can be found in his 1998 film The Idiots, the second and strongest Dogme 95 production. That manifesto, drawn up by von Trier and his fellow Danish film-maker Thomas Vinterberg, included ten purifying decrees such as: “The camera must be hand-held” and “Shooting must be done on location”; it made wondrous sense when applied to The Idiots, in which the same quest for honesty drives the characters. They are middle-class people who have devoted their lives to feigning mental disabilities in public. They are a glorious embarrassment.

Self-portraiture continues in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which recounts the lifelong carnal habits of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg; a younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin). She is found by the scholarly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) lying battered and bloody in the street; he takes her home, where she unpicks for him her grim sexual history, from competing with a friend to see which of them can have the most sex with strangers on a single train journey to presenting herself to a professional sadist (Jamie Bell) who tells her to tie back her hair “in case it becomes necessary to hit you in the face”. The film’s explicitness approaches the pornographic – there are no holes barred – but titillation is precluded by the comic screenplay and a tone of clinical coldness. At times, it has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation, only with montages of genitalia in place of Venn diagrams and flow charts.

No film called Nymphomaniac will struggle to find an audience but viewers should remember the example of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Marketed as erotic, it transpired splendidly to be a three-hour comedy about coitus interruptus. Von Trier references Kubrick’s film in his use of Shostakovich, one of two opposing musical presences in Nymphomaniac – the other being the German industrial metal band Rammstein. This is a divided movie, torn also between its two authorial voices. For every scandalous confession by Joe, there’s a jaunty or bathetic footnote from Seligman. When she makes a tally of the number of thrusts visited on her orifices by her first lover, Seligman is ecstatic: “Those are Fibonacci numbers!” An explanation of her cruising tactics gets a professorial response: “There’s a very clear parallel to fishing in the stream,” he says merrily. It’s rather like leafing through Story of O to find that a few pages from the Encyclopaedia Britannica have strayed in.

The film is also cleaved in half in a literal sense. It is being released in two “volumes” of around two hours each, though there is no question that they need to be seen as a complete work: in for a penis, in for a pound. Admirers of von Trier are accustomed to taking the rough with the smooth and an episodic structure makes Nymphomaniac even more variable than usual. If it feels disruptive that he has included such an obvious allusion to the Cannes debacle (Seligman says, “Each time a word becomes prohibited, you remove a founding block of democracy”), there is at least a reminder of how he got himself into that mess, when Joe prefaces her sexual encounter with two black African men by saying: “I call a spade a spade.” This tendency for empty provocation, seen also in the disastrous final scene, may be the only thing separating von Trier from greatness.

However, for every moment of flippancy, there is something correspondingly intense and full-blooded: a wronged and hysterical wife (Uma Thurman) showing her children around Joe’s apartment, where their father has been spending most of his time, or the eruption of panic when Joe realises that she cannot feel anything during sex. Her explanation for her nymphomania has been that her needs are intensely heightened: “I demand more vivid sunsets,” is how she puts it. To be outraged, humiliated, affronted or even assaulted is preferable to feeling numb. Whether in film or sitting in front of unforgiving microphones, von Trier has been preaching this gospel of mischief and manic depression for his entire career.
 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution