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Nymphomaniac, by Lars von Trier, and the limits of freedom of expression

Joe tells the story of his life to challenge her audience's false morals.

I write this text inspired by the latest nasty Brazilian debate on freedom of expression.

This week, a bicycle brand-name silly boy who makes a profession of being a digital influencer, following the current fashion, made a series of unfortunate comments about a historical fact that he is very proud to show he knows nothing about, Nazism. He had the companion of two federal deputies equally incapable of making any minimally adequate comment on the subject.

As if that were not enough, a horde of opportunists and muggles of all kinds exposed their imbecility. They established out and loud that stating anything about Nazism is a hate crime. So, there must be punishment for the silly individual who made the stupid comments with all the efforts of the bourgeois state repression apparatus.

The mob chose Twitter as the social network to spew their condemnations and say the most repeated vexing phrase of the last week: "freedom of expression has limits." The conclusion is unanimous and unites all kinds of political fauna, mainly from a right-wing that calls itself left.

This text reflects on this situation, using cinema, which always inspires us to understand our perverse reality.

In 2011, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier went through a similar problem. The setting was the Cannes Film Festival. At the time, the director and his cast were releasing Melancholia.

It was the press conference and, at one point, when asked about Nazi aesthetics, Lars von Trier started to say a lot of nonsense and, in the end, ended the answer with this sarcastic sentence: "Okay, I´m a nazi."

What followed was a scandal on a global scale and, as the postmodern cultural sewer demands, the cancellation of the director, who was declared persona non grata by the Cannes Film Festival and a Nazi by the entire international press.

Lars von Trier protested, apologized, and, in 2013, released a masterpiece called Nymphomaniac: a genius response to all this hysteria against freedom of expression, especially that inflamed by the petty bourgeoisie that calls itself left-wing, including journalists who call themselves progressives.

The work has two volumes, 5-and-half-hour long in the director´s cut version. It is a cinematographic phenomenon about film form and its materials, especially the theme of politically correct discourse.

The plot follows a thread. On a cold night, recluse Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), returning from a Jewish shop where he buys tea and rugelach, finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in an alley. She is all bruised and dirty. He offers to call the police, but refusing, Joe prefers tea. He then takes her home, and Joe spends the night telling her life story.

We watch a cinematographic powerful game, which depends a lot on attention and whether or not the viewer identifies with one of the characters, without minimal questioning about what the film shows. A dose of Brechtian estrangement and another of minimally dialectical reasoning are necessary.

Seligman is a compassionate listener, full of intellectual quotations, who interprets Joe´s experiences in the light of enlightened rationality and a complacent morality. He looks like a psychologist. But, is it that? Is Seligman, with his references to the music of Bach and Marcel Proust, really that reliable? And Joe? Did everything she says happen? Is she confessing or trying to wrest secrets from Seligman?

And you who watch? What is the film showing you about our historical moment? What is your degree of adherence to postmodern subjectivity? As everything ties to scenes of explicit sex, everyone will know how far their acceptance of the current moralistic rubbish goes.

One thing is a certainty: it is not easy to find a film that explains in such a way the fallacies, arbitrariness, and authoritarian dangers of politically correct discourse and reactionary identity agenda in the historical context of late capitalism as Nymphomaniac. The film is a necessity.

(In 2016, Nymphomaniac became the subject of my doctoral thesis at FFLCH-USP. It is unique research. The strength of the analysis is the discussion about narrative focus and point of view in cinema. The title is Nymphomaniac, by Lars von Trier: narrating in perverse times. Read here.)


The commercial (4-hour) version of Nymphomaniac (Volume 1 and Volume 2) is available on Netflix.


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