Realer Than Real: Nymphomaniac and the Future of CGI Sex in Movies

During the closing credits of Lars von Trier's new movie, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, a disclaimer pops up: "None of the professional actors had penetrative sexual intercourse and all such scenes where [sic] performed by body doubles."

I found this disclaimer even more shocking than the sex depicted in the film. The first of a two-part series—Vol. II comes to VOD March 20—Vol. I concerns the plight of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a sexually ravenous woman who recounts to a stranger (Stellan Skarsgård) significant moments from her lascivious past. These flashbacks form the bulk of the film, with each tale given its own chapter. All the while, von Trier, who has featured un-simulated sex in two previous films (The Idiots and Antichrist), presents us with a cornucopia of nudity and screwing, complete with blowjobs, penetration and endless amounts of genitalia.

Von Trier has long prided himself on being a provocateur: In Dogville, Nicole Kidman was raped by the hypocritical denizens of a seemingly wholesome small town, and in Antichrist, Willem Dafoe's character had his genitals savagely pummeled. And so, it was expected that Nymphomaniac would be Lars Uncensored, especially after he first dropped hints about the project in 2011, boldly telling a Cannes press conference, "My next film … will be porn. That's how women are. Really hardcore."

Vol. I isn't porn per se, but it could be the future of sex on screen. While it appears that Stacy Martin (who plays Joe in the flashbacks) is having sex with, among others, Shia LaBeouf, last year the film's producer Louise Vesth explained to The Hollywood Reporter, "We shot the actors pretending to have sex and then had the body doubles, who really did have sex, and in post we will digital-impose the two. So above the waist it will be the star and below the waist it will be the doubles."

That von Trier achieved a greater sense of sexual realism through CGI is ironic—it's the first time in too long that anyone has accused the overused technology of producing something that felt authentic. Ever since Steven Spielberg utilized CGI in 1993's Jurassic Park, Hollywood has become obsessed with slathering computer effects all over its films. And not just in the summer blockbusters, either. For instance, in The Social Network, when the characters can see their breath on a cold night, the effect was digitally rendered.

The cumulative effect of all this CGI was supposed to help filmmakers create vivid new worlds, but the opposite has proved true: Movies have become depressingly fake. Whether it's a digital Spider-Man zipping across the Manhattan skyline or a blandly epic crowd scene filled with digital spectators, we know there's no flesh and blood there, so why should we care about these people?

By contrast, the digital deception that occurs in Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is startling because it's so seamless, drawing us in rather than distancing us like so much other CGI. Perhaps it's because this is a new technique and I wasn't savvy enough to spot it, but Vol. I's sex feels natural, lifelike and unfussy, which are the hardest aspects of a sex scene to get right.

It's understandable why actors—particularly women—feel anxious about performing realistic sex scenes. When sites like Mr. Skin exist to catalog every second of onscreen nudity for eternity—and when Oscar host Seth MacFarlane performs a mocking song called "We Saw Your Boobs"—it creates a form of slut-shaming that discourages actors from delving into dramatic sexual territory. (After all, one bad sexually charged film could ruin a career; just ask Elizabeth Berkley, the star of the unintentionally campy Showgirls, which aspired to be a cautionary Star Is Born-esque tale about an aspiring Vegas stripper but ended up as a collection of painfully funny striptease and sex scenes.)

But in the digital age, these concerns might be a thing of the past. In 2010, Jessica Alba (who has vowed not to do nudity) wasn't really naked in a shower scene in Machete but was, in fact, wearing white underwear that was digitally erased during post-production. (Alba's publicist later sent out a statement that said in part, "The decision … was one [Alba] and [director] Robert Rodriguez made together, which would serve his vision for the film, as well as honor her personal convictions regarding nudity. She is very proud of the film and stands by the creative decisions she and Robert made about this scene.") The following year, Olivia Wilde's topless scene in The Change-Up, also proved to be fake, with her pasties later turned into nipples by computer. ("I got to approve the nipples," she told Jimmy Kimmel a week before the movie opened.)

Those examples, however, are minor in comparison to Nymphomaniac: Vol. I's use of digital technology, which feels like a watershed moment for sexuality in film, combining the explicitness of porn with an auteur's distinctive vision. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider that one of Nymphomaniac's body doubles, Elvira Friis, an adult film actor, recently told The Wall Street Journal, "My mom never speaks with her friends about what I am doing, but she straight away told her friend that I am playing in a von Trier movie."

Ever since von Trier brashly called Nymphomaniac porn three years ago, there's been an expectation that he would make a completely outrageous movie. (Adding to that impression was a series of character posters of the actors in the throes of orgasm.) But the film's sex is neither titillating nor trashy: It turns out that von Trier's most incendiary move in Vol. I is treating sex as a simple fact, indistinguishable from other parts of life. Throughout the film, Joe recounts her adolescence and her early adulthood—complete with an unhappy childhood, the death of her beloved father, romantic heartbreak and adultery—and sex is integrated into each experience, not separated into its own unseemly box.

Such normality is difficult to achieve in an environment in which studios and filmmakers are skittish about portraying sexual activity. (Serious-minded NC-17 films like the superb Shame and Blue Is the Warmest Color are the exception.) Which is why it's smart of von Trier to build a digital workaround: A name actor like LaBeouf or a promising newcomer such as Martincan engage in sex scenes with a CGI safety net, giving the sequences believability without the actors worrying about sacrificing their image. Hopefully, the digital trickery will liberate actors from the nervous-giggle reaction that greeted Chloë Sevigny for years after The Brown Bunny, the notorious (and underrated) 2003 art-house drama in which she gave filmmaker-star Vincent Gallo a lengthy, un-simulated blowjob during the emotional finale. (Nine years later, she was still telling interviewers, "People expect me to say I regret Brown Bunny, but I won't.")

It's a shame that Vol. I isn't better: The performances are uneven, and unlike von Trier's best films, it lacks the tight storytelling that normally gives his audacious gambits their momentum. But its creative lapses can't obscure the filmmaker's daring idea that sex shouldn't be a verboten topic—either onscreen or in our lives. Midway through Vol. I, Joe confesses to Skarsgård's character that she's ashamed of her sexual past, but he tells her not to feel that way, comparing her desires to everything from the meditative pleasures of fly-fishing to the sublimity of classical music. Von Trier seems to be saying that a healthy sexual appetite isn't that different than an appreciation for the arts or the great outdoors.

That's how sex should be viewed—too bad it rarely is. Sexuality might be everywhere in pop culture, but actual sex remains confined to the shadows. Vol. I defiantly shines a light into those dark corners, forcing us to see sex not as some dirty behavior but as just another way to interact in the world.

In the best-case scenario, Vol. I will show other directors how to make intelligent movies about sex, pushing the envelope without forcing their actors to do things that would make them uncomfortable. (It's funny that one of the arguments in favor of CGI in action movies was that it would protect stunt performers from injury or death; for cinematic sex, CGI could protect performers' reputations.) Maybe digitally assisted sex scenes will liberate the NC-17 film from the ghetto, normalizing subject matter that needn't be pushed to the margins. That's probably too much to ask of one deeply flawed film. But for too long, Hollywood has embraced the phoniness of CGI—it would be wonderfully perverse if Lars von Trier showed the industry how digital sleight-of-hand could help make sex look more realistic.


Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone's critic-at-large. He is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of "FilmCraft: Screenwriting." Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson

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Photo courtesy of Christian Geisnaes