Songs in the Key of Cinema is a bi-weekly look at the use of songs in film and how that music fits within the context of the film as a whole and a place where we’ll cover the moments in cinema that were music to our eyes and ears.
From putting his female protagonists through absolute Hell to tattooing the F-word on his knuckles, one might as well assume that the enfant terrible of art film, Lars von Trier, has been provoking reactions since his time in the womb. Though von Trier, at 57, is hardly a child by biological terms anymore, he still likes to get a reaction out of his audience and critics not unlike a willful toddler. So, he self-reflexively acknowledges this nearly innate desire to provoke by using a surprising, but decidedly telling track by Steppenwolf in his latest film, the sex opus Nymphomaniac: “Born to Be Wild”. And what could fit better for the man behind Europa, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Antichrist?
Written by Mars Bonfire and released 1967, the track has an odd paradoxical appeal: the song is undoubtedly mainstream and has had a large audience, but it also frequently appears in counter culture scenarios. Its most famous appearance was in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider, a film that both celebrated the idealism of the counter culture movement of the 1960s but forced its audience to acknowledge its flaws. The film itself is fairly cynical in its outlook on the United States, especially with regard to tolerance, but the revolutionary freewheeling style and unsubtle allegory about America nonetheless made it a box office hit, and launched the song into myth. Steppenwolf, the rock band who performed the song, enjoyed a fairly successful career, their next hit being “Magic Carpet Ride”, but “Born to Be Wild” would be the track that remained iconic.
After Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the street, presumably left for dead, she begins to tell him her life as a nymphomaniac. In the first chapter of her sexcapades, in Nymphomaniac: Volume I, “The Compleat Angler”, she and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) try a little contest on a train: whomever can have sex with the most men will win a bag of “chocolate sweeties” and, of course, bragging rights. As the two make their way down the train corridor wearing tight, suggestive clothing, leering back at the men who leer at them, Steppenwolf’s iconic track plays non-diegetically over the scene. And wild they do get.
Perhaps curiously, Joe spends a majority of her story throughout the film using absolutes, the most telling being, “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.” “Only”, “always”, “only”. Joe nearly transcends her existence here, speaking as if she has, from her very birth, asked for these things. That they have always been on her mind and have been her only wishes as a person.
That kind of desire and lust for life has always been a part of her, even as she tells us “[she] discovered [her] c*** at the age of two.” Her vagina, a part of her since she was born, would become something she would use to manifest her demands.
And while Joe certainly leads a fascinating, amusing, sometimes painful life, it is, as Steppenwolf suggests, exactly wild. One, though, can consider the auto-reflexive nature of Nymphomaniac, that the film is a jokey, darkly comic autobiography pursuing the past work of von Trier. A.A. Dowd and David Ehrlich have done as much to suggest that Nymphomaniac might as well be the culmination of Lars von Trier’s work as a director, a tour guide from his earlier “Europe Trilogy” to his Dogme phase to even his smaller stuff like The Five Obstructions and Riget, all unified by a singular loneliness.
Just as important to recognize is that the director made a name for himself by pushing buttons: with his first feature film The Element of Crime premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984, the nightmarish neo-noir was the first piece of evidence that Lars liked to joke around. Pulling from Hitchcock and Blade Runner and deliberately shooting the film in English, there was an intentional pretension behind the film. He dared to play himself in Epidemic and then a Holocaust survivor in Europa. Let it not be said that Lars von Trier does not like to show off.
He delved into the dynamic between sex and sin in Breaking the Waves, exploring the holy and unholy with aplomb, but he set off red flags with The Idiots, about a commune of people who “spaz” (a strange way of trying to destigmatize mental illness). Part of the Dogme 95 movement co-created with Festen director Thomas Vinterberg, with each passing film it felt like von Trier only created the movement so he could break away from it. Hardly a rule follower by any means, his next film was Dancer in the Dark, which danced on the grave of the very objective that Dogme 95 sought to achieve: realism.
Dancer does indeed heavily rely on a sense of realism, retaining the handheld style of Dogme, but it is offset by fantasy musical sequences that take place in the mind of Lars’s female protagonist Selma (Bjork). Placing dozens of cameras stationary around the shooting environment and then cutting between the footage, this directly juxtaposed Dogme’s credo. Yet one can tell that the director is quietly laughing to himself, blending fantasy and reality and cracking down upon the musical genre in a melancholically deconstructive way.
That film took home the Palme d’Or and Best Actress for the Icelandic singer, but the film garnered an extremely polarizing reaction, and even led to Bjork quitting acting and warning Nicole Kidman not to do Dogville. Both Dogville and Manderlay, with its intense anti-American subtext, gave struggling Lars von Trier fans an ultimatum: either you were on board with the joker or you were not. The sheer horror of Antichrist, with its graphic imagery and blatant examination of misogyny, also caused a stir. To this day, he continues to do that.
What remains interesting about “Lars von Trier as provocateur” is, to some extent, his self-mythologizing, amplified by Nymphomaniac’s constant references to his previous films, both aesthetically and through little cues (the Handel piece, the hospital, etc.). Formally, though, Lars von Trier has always pushed and experimented, often to staggering results. He is, as Steppenwolf sings, “Lookin’ for adventure, whatever comes [his] way”. He recalled Tarkovsky in Antichrist, played with Brecht and Thornton Wilder in Dogville, deconstructed the musical in Dancer in the Dark, made a horrific hallucination out of Casablanca in Europa, and let a computer do all the work in The Boss of It All.
Nymphomaniac though might be his most experimental yet. As Skarsgård calls it, it’s a “digressionist film”, meaning that as Joe tells her story, Seligman constantly interrupts her to make a point of comparison with something else. Using archival footage, split screen, onscreen graphics, and numerous other techniques, the auteur not only plays with the comparisons Seligman makes, but bats you over the head with how literal they are, giving the impression that there is little room for interpretation. It is out and out literalism.
Yet Nymphomaniac isn’t the same kind of provocation one has come to expect from the Danish director. It pushes different buttons in different ways. Pushing the boundaries of tolerance, he fills the screen, and most of the running time, with mechanical, often tedious sex scenes, seemingly challenging the audience who came to see his “art house porno”. But it may be the ham fisted literalism of the visual metaphors and intentional winking at his own life as a provocateur which raise eyebrows. From fly fishing to Fibonacci numbers, to a bark of laughter at some of his most infamous controversies, von Trier dares to ask the audience what they could possibly expect from him. This isn’t the same kind of provocation as breaking Bjork’s soul or slamming Willem Dafoe’s balls with a wood log. He sneers at those who denounce him as a misogynist or praise him as a feminist. It’s wild. It’s an intellectual challenge, as opposed to a purely visceral one.
One of the most important parts to realize is that Joe, like von Trier, does not compromise. For them, the wildness is part of their soul, innate, and nearly transcendent of their being.
I like smoke and lightning
Heavy metal thunder
Racin’ with the wind
And the feelin’ that I’m under
Yeah Darlin’ go make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of your guns at once
And explode into space
Indeed, the film begins with the thrash of “heavy metal thunder” using Rammstein’s title song, but that such “popular” works are used in the film at all might be a testament to Lars’s very wildness. Although he did use David Bowie “Young Americans” in Dogville and Manderlay and several pop favorites in Breaking the Waves (including Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), von Trier has had a penchant for using classical works, such as Handel, Wagner, and most recently, Shostakovich. (The latter inclusion is amusing, given the sexual connotations of Waltz. No. 2 from Jazz Suite for Orchestra, which was used at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.)
The last three lines of the verse are curious with respect to von Trier’s work. Ostensibly, Lars von Trier is very straightforward in his cynicism, but, as I argued in another essay, he is really a romantic cynic. In essence, there’s cognitive dissonance in his films, a desire to let emotion rule all but the realization that the evil of humanity prevents that. While Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg) explode into space literally at the end/beginning of Melancholia, Nymphomaniac does so less literally. Plenty of explosive orgasms sprinkle the film, but the real explosion is the burst of emotion that Joe gives us for four hours. (And of course, there’s a chapter called “The Gun”.)
For, Joe, who proudly embraces her label of “nymphomaniac” and who “love[s her] filthy lust” was born to be wild. Every action she takes, she wants the fullest from it, regardless of the consequences. It may be, to some extent, an ironic application of carpe diem or, heaven forbid, “YOLO”, but the film’s director is just as wonderfully reckless, just as troubling and problematic, even directly addressing these issues with a sneer, just as wild, born to be wild.