Vengeance of the duelling swords

April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

There is a scene in Lars von Trier’s newest work, a scene that to my dismay is much maligned; one which I find myself increasingly compelled to defend, and not even for the satisfaction of some contrarian streak. It’s the kind of scene I expected would set on edge those burdened with white guilt and those fuelled by reflexive non-white indignation, souring every mouth in the theatre and lingering long afterwards like a recent and pungent fart, but not one I expected would be read so superficially, perhaps for fear of appearing to entertain/humour von Trier’s most impish provocation tendencies.

In this scene from ‘Nymphomaniac’, Joe, the film’s titular sex-fiend as embodied by von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg, recounts an encounter that was borne of her desire to fuck a man with whom verbal communication was not possible. From her window way up in an apartment block in an indeterminate European – possibly British – locale, she spots a group of black men who frequent a certain street corner and who turn out to be African migrants with whose language she is not at all familiar. One particularly burly member of this group appeals to her and, in a conveniently elliptical turn, Joe acquires the services of a man who can translate her very plain sexual request into this fellow’s mother tongue. The man predictably accepts and instructs her via a scribbled note to meet in a hotel room for which Joe, a sexual risk-taker for decades, is totally game. What follows is an odd, farcical couple of minutes which initially threatened to test my knee reflex but which, on further thought, I feel is a wonderful reversal of that which people accuse the scene of endorsing or at the very least perpetuating. As Joe sits on the bed and waits with a nervousness that struck me as being out of sorts for her, the burly African, whose name I do not remember catching if indeed it was mentioned, walks in with a friend in tail, another African whom Joe equally does not understand and did not at all expect. They, the two men, then proceed to…assess Joe…stripping her clothes off and subjecting her lean and small-featured alabaster body to their foreign gazes. They themselves strip nude and, lo and behold, it turns out that they obey the ethnographic laws of penile endowment. Joe is frankly skewered by double entry and shows no discernible signs of pleasure if my memory serves well. At some point during the very unsexy proceedings, the two men both withdraw and get into a bit of a non-translated tiff about who knows what exactly, though it can be deduced that it has something to do with position and who gets the best piece of ass and for how long. In a move that strikes me as very apt but which I suspect strikes many as being very degrading and fetishist, von Trier’s frame centres Joe on the bed, naked, confused and looking utterly vulnerable while in the foreground two occasionally pulsating big black penises confront each other like duelling swords, the heads and torsos of the men to whom they are attached being somewhere off screen.

It’s understandable why the sight of two black males ‘exploiting’ one white female may come across as racially inflammatory, reviving or sustaining the somewhat pervasive idea that one is a perpetual threat to the other, and yes to some extent a degree of exploitation may in fact be taking place with Joe as the victim. Yet in this scene, Joe, being the individual who initially singled out another to satisfy her possibly fetishist if not exoticist fantasies, finds herself confronted with not just one but two versions of that which she may have fantasised about. The big black phallus she possibly swooned over in her daydreams is now made doubly manifest and it is actually threatening, and the men from whom the dicks sprout speak a language she doesn’t understand, and they will, these men – as far as she can tell – skewer her again. While the scene may say nothing to erase or rehabilitate commonly held racial misrepresentations, to say that it does not – at the very least – poke fun at or satirise sexual tourism and jungle fever is to be unfairly critical. At its worst this scene admittedly bears the stench of clumsily executed farce (which may in fact signify a clumsily executed depiction of miscommunication and ‘otherness’), but at its best it is grandly subversive, so much so that it seems to have been drowned out by gallons of aforementioned white guilt and reflexive non-white indignation.

I guess the trouble is further concentrated when Joe, too unsettled by being the subject of marketplace bickering, grabs her gear and slinks out of the hotel room to leave a frame dominated by two occasionally throbbing big black penises. One could argue that this simply represents von Trier’s gleeful indulgence in his own personal racial biases, sure. But it could also be said that this shot simply forces viewers to confront the very stereotypes that are – and I can personally attest to this – surprisingly and bafflingly still quite pervasive. As for the conversation that follows in which Joe implies that calling a black man a ‘negro’ is to simply call a spade a spade, it does not strike me as particularly offensive, one being that art has the right to portray all manner of individuals, racist or not; the second being that the use of the term ‘negro’, while laden with historical baggage that I personally do not understand, ought not negate the commentarial power of the preceding scene. One thing I have learnt about von Trier is that he and his films are often a rambling potluck of ideas and that the tastelessness or unpleasantness of one need not, no, should not detract from the utter succulence of another.

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