Revenge Of The Auteur: Nymphomaniac’s Musical Miscellany

John Wadsworth examines director Lars Von Trier's use of music in 2013's Nymphomaniac. This article contains spoilers.

The choice of music used in Lars von Trier’s 2013 film Nymphomaniac may seem scattershot and inconsistent, but this seems to have been precisely the point. The director was keen to avoid a repeat of his previous offering, Melancholia, which he had openly criticised upon its release. In his official Director’s Statement for Melancholia, von Trier had declared that he was “ready to reject the film like a wrongly transplanted organ”. At the Cannes press preview, he claimed that it “might be really not worth seeing”. Whether such comments were intended as expectation management, calculated self-deprecation or genuine dejection, they are certainly not the words of an artist who is proud of his work.

Melancholia was not an objective failure by any means; considered alongside other films directed by von Trier, it was a comparative commercial – and critical – success. But these are not the criteria with which von Trier evaluates his output. As an enfant terrible who frequently causes controversy and courts infamy, he wishes to make films that provoke and even enrage, unsettling audience members “like a stone in your shoe”. He took issue with Melancholia because he felt it was – as far as a film about depression and the apocalypse can be – pleasant to watch.

Von Trier’s career can be understood through the lens of auteurism, the theory that certain directors have such control over the production process that they are considered the primary author of their films, holding a position analogous to that of a novelist. Auteurs are seen to brand their output with a distinctive stylistic stamp, which resists studio interference and survives the meddling of other filmmaking personnel. The auteur’s creative vision is understood to be paramount, refusing to compromise even when met with opposition from the cast, crew or viewer.

As examined in a recent article for PopMatters, von Trier has repeatedly built narratives of authority and authorship into his films, exploring these themes both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. One of the director’s favourite tricks – made explicit in his documentary, The Five Obstructions – is to feign loss of control while continuing to pull the strings. The struggle for power that lurks under the surface of Melancholia is a notable anomaly, for two reasons: the tension existed, unusually, between man and music; and it was, at least in part, unplanned.

Melancholia is saturated with one composition: the prelude from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Over the course of two hours, we hear eleven excerpts from the piece, and very little else. The importance of the Tristan Prelude extended beyond this apparent omnipresence, though. It served to articulate and validate the worldview of Justine, Melancholia’s protagonist. The prelude’s presence encouraged the audience to share her melancholic outlook.

Problems arose when the Tristan Prelude began to influence other, unforeseen, aspects of the production process. With von Trier refusing to share his interpretation of the film, the cast and crew turned to the prelude for inspiration. This led to the adoption of a visual aesthetic that von Trier disdainfully likened to Hollywood movies, and sound editing that focused on appealing to the audience’s emotions. The stone in the shoe was no more. It is no surprise, then, that the director has claimed that he had gone “overboard, blasting Richard Wagner”.

If Melancholia raised questions about von Trier’s auteur status, his next film seemed committed to restoring his reputation. Nymphomaniac follows the life of a hypersexual woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as told to a middle-aged, bookish bachelor called Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). As Joe recounts her sexual experiences, sorting the episodes into chapters, Seligman contributes titbits on tangential topics, from angling to mountaineering. While she drives the plot, it is Seligman who contextualises and questions her actions, providing a commentary and imposing meaning.

The chapter structure and Seligman’s diverse digressions not only act as a framing device within Nymphomaniac; they also allow von Trier to avoid Melancholia’s aesthetic uniformity. Nymphomaniac’s hefty running time (four hours, or five and a half hours uncut) is stuffed with a mishmash of moods, talking points and filmmaking styles. Similarly, where Melancholia had hinged upon the Tristan Prelude, Nymphomaniac contains a musical miscellany designed to match its mixed content. Rather than putting all of his eggs in one basket, as he had done for Melancholia, von Trier here decided to use as many baskets as possible.

The songs and classical compositions included in Nymphomaniac can be broadly described as fulfilling one of three functions, each of which enables von Trier to assert control over his content. First, the director reused compositions that he had used in earlier films, forming direct links to his auteurist back catalogue. Second, he expanded his sonic palette, incorporating musical styles absent from his previous work. Third, he returned to the inspirations behind Melancholia and cast them in a new light.

As Peter Schepelern has noted, Nymphomaniac is full of references to other von Trier films, and the music is no exception here. A young Joe slides around a bathroom floor to ‘Waltz No. 2’ from Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra, a piece earlier used in an advertisement, ‘La Rue de la Vie’, directed by von Trier in 1993. The same waltz reappears later in the film as Seligman imagines Joe teaching in a classroom. In another scene, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan plays, a composition heard several times in von Trier’s The Idiots.

Although these fleeting references are likely to pass even a keen von Trier fan by, one allusion stands out as an act of blatant self-reference. In this scene, Joe leaves her young child alone in his cot as she meets a sadomasochist (Jamie Bell). When the child wakes, he totters out onto the open balcony, accompanied by Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’. The audience’s dread is compounded by the fact that they may have seen this all before; both the composition and an identical set of circumstances are present in von Trier’s Antichrist. By overtly pointing to his past work, von Trier is gleefully reminding us of his ability to shock.

In contrast to this act of recycling, Nymphomaniac is bookended by two compositions that mark a conscious departure from von Trier’s previous work. The film begins with pitch black and silence, followed by slow-moving shots of clinking metal, trickling water and alley walls. We see Joe’s bloodied hand, the rest of her body cropped from view, before moving once more into darkness. Then the camera snaps to a shot that shows Joe lying on the ground, as Rammstein’s ‘Führe Mich’ bursts unexpectedly into life. The German metal band’s music is unlike any cue previously used by von Trier, and is introduced in a way that emphasises this element of surprise. With this opening sequence, the director seems to be declaring that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

From Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ to Talking Heads ‘Burning Down the House’, Nymphomaniac uses many new genres throughout its duration, but only one other instance is as striking. ‘Hey Joe’, best known in a version by Jimi Hendrix, is a folk song about a man accused of shooting his partner, after he discovers her infidelity. It is here sung by Charlotte Gainsbourg in the film’s closing credits. Beyond the song’s breathy, ethereal soundworld, though, its inclusion is notable for its direct connection to the film’s action. The plot may have reached its endpoint, but von Trier continues to shape the story.

The heterosexual nature of the original song is complicated by Joe adopting the role of the traditionally male narrator, a change that reflects Nymphomaniac’s narrative: in one of the last scenes, Joe witnesses her most recent (female) lover being unfaithful. In the film’s closing moments, she shoots an attempted rapist and flees from the crime, mirroring the murder of the song’s lyrics. Joe’s fate is left unknown to the audience, an ambiguity reflected in the final stanza: ‘Hey Joe, where are you going to run to now?’ Gainsbourg seems to enter a conversation with her character here, highlighting Nymphomaniac’s artificiality. The final line, “Goodbye everybody”, is a fitting end to von Trier’s most self-reflective and self-indulgently playful film.

Von Trier often draws from other artists’ works and ideas to advance his own arguments; Melancholia and Nymphomaniac are no exception. Both reference the same scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, in which we see Brueghel the Elder’s painting Hunters In The Snow and hear J. S. Bach’s organ prelude ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’. Each were used by Tarkovsky to emphasise cinema’s artistic precedents, and to assert its maturity as an art form. Von Trier used the Brueghel work in Melancholia for the same reason, holding it up alongside Wagner’s Tristan Prelude as proof of the “true value” of art and film. For von Trier, art has a redemptive potential, and allows humanity a rare escape from worldly evils.

In Nymphomaniac, Bach’s ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir’ is played as Joe describes her relationships with a trio of complementary lovers. She likens this to three-voice polyphony, and uses Bach’s organ prelude to demonstrate their harmony. The three musical voices are not only mirrored by the tripartite structure of the scene, but also by the division of the screen into thirds, one for each lover. Von Trier had experimented with structuring the drama and visual cuts of Melancholia around the Tristan Prelude, but makes his approach far more explicit to the audience here.

Not that Tarkovsky was von Trier’s only inspiration. The director claimed that his use of the Tristan Prelude in Melancholia was inspired by a thirty-page discussion of the piece in Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, which declared the piece to be the greatest artwork of all time. During the screenwriting process for Nymphomaniac, von Trier revisited the novel, a decision that seems to have influenced his choice of music. One of the most famous elements of Proust’s work is his description of the fictional Vinteuil Sonata, widely considered to be based on César Franck’s Sonata For Violin And Piano. This piece is heard several times throughout Nymphomaniac, most notably when Joe discovers her ‘soul tree’.

By including Franck’s sonata, von Trier was able to conjure up the same Proustian transcendence that he had aimed for in Melancholia. As if to emphasise the similarity in function to the Tristan Prelude, Franck’s sonata was even rearranged for cello. This choice served to draw a close sonic parallel to the solo opening line of Wagner’s composition, which features the same instrument and timbre. The use of Bach and Franck’s music can be understood as von Trier revisiting Melancholia’s core argument – the truth of art, and its connection to melancholic tendencies – while adding another act that enables temporary withdrawal from the material world: sex.

The connection between art and sex is made directly in the scene featuring Joe’s trio of lovers, while appearances of Franck’s sonata alternate between depictions of arousal and discussions of the soul. Halfway through Nymphomaniac, Joe becomes unable to orgasm, and Franck’s piece goes unheard until she regains that ability. The last composition that we hear before entering this musicless period of the film is noteworthy in itself: ‘Descent into Nibelheim’, from Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold. In the opera, this orchestral interlude accompanies Loge and Wotan’s journey into the mines of the Nibelung, a race of enslaved dwarves. Alongside the expected instruments, the large ensemble employed here includes eighteen anvils.

In Das Rheingold, this percussive clanging depicts the dwarves’ oppression. In Nymphomaniac, it marks the point at which Joe turns to sadomasochism, with the beating of anvils foreshadowing the cracking of whips soon to come. The parallel is clearly an intentional one, with the use of the piece even commented upon by Seligman. There is also another narrative present here, beneath the film’s surface, related to the tendency of Wagner’s music to overpower. In Bryan Magee’s words, it “attempts to dominate listeners and spectators, to impose itself on them, subjugate them.”

Von Trier seems to agree. He uses ‘Descent into Nibelheim’ to prefigure the subjugation not only of his protagonist, but also of his audience, who at this moment have just begun to watch Nymphomaniac’s decidedly darker second half. With Melancholia in the back of his mind, the director ensures that Wagner is squarely on his side this time around, refusing to be dominated himself. While the Tristan Prelude became caught up within conflicting interpretations, von Trier leaves nothing to chance with the snippet of Das Rheingold, going as far as to have his characters explicitly discuss the purpose of the piece’s presence to ensure clarity.

Although Nymphomaniac’s musical cues vary greatly in form and style, they all ultimately serve to stress the director’s revitalised sense of authorial control, from recycled compositions and forays into new genres, to revisits of Melancholia’s ideas and influences. The film plays like a portfolio put together to demonstrate von Trier’s directorial credentials, with cherry-picked moments recalled from his back catalogue and past disappointments redressed. Von Trier may have ended up viewing Melancholia as a “wrongly transplanted organ”, but it is fair to say that Nymphomaniac’s musical miscellany offers a potent auteurist antidote.

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