Belongs to Joe came about after Sejersen was employed as the publicity photographer for Lars Von Triers’ film Nymphomaniac (2014). After being sent the script, Sejersen asked if he could make the work, separate from the publicity for which he was paid, as a personal response to the film. He was given permission. The book contains the same actors and props and in just a few cases, some images. Sejersen has included references from the film such as the game Canasta, Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu XI, Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Fibonacci numbers, Bach’s principles of composition, as well as the central character’s relationship with trees and nature vs. urban living, which she absorbed from her father. The text in the book comes from the script or else is provided by Cecilie Høgsbro, who receives equal credit on the © information page but not the cover.
After reading a positive review of Belongs to Joe I decided to buy it because I was interested in the way a photographer used someone else’s script to create a body of work. (I have, perhaps since TAOP, been thinking about the possibility of doing this in some way, either making work based on all the characters I played or using a single script.)
I had not seen the film although am familiar with Von Triers’ work, in particular Breaking the Waves. However, it seemed imperative to do so, because despite Sejersen’s insistence the book was made to stand on its own, I found it hard to make any sense of. Here I will summarise the film and discuss some of the most relevant (for me) themes, as well as referring to the book as I go.
Nymphomaniac – the film
The film is broken up into two parts, and each of those into several chapters which are titled by the narrator Joe, who tells the story of her life to Seligman in his spare bedroom/study after he finds her injured, beaten in an alley outside his apartment. Joe has been addicted to sex since her teenage years, and during each of the chapters she relates, we hear how she has lived a life, which according to her has made her an extremely bad person. She has cheated on everyone, abandoned her son, earned money by hurting others, and by her own account thoroughly deserves the awful situation Seligman found her in. As mentioned above there are numerous references to cultural, philosophical/theoretical objects and texts from our collective history, which have contributed to the way in which stories are told today.
Seligman invariably likens a scenario he’s heard about from Joe to topics he is interested in, such as The Compleat Angler or Proust, and Joe takes the reference and uses it to create a heading and form a subsequent narrative container. For instance, after mentioning the wrangler book, Joe begins with Chapter One and titles it the same name. Thereafter, metaphors from fishing are used to describe how Joe caught men, such as linking a small beginner’s fly called a nymph, which Seligman has pinned to his wall, to her narrative. And so each chapter emerges in this way from their conversation. Constructing the narrative like this is helped along by episodic editing conventions allowing Joe to travel back and forth in time as parts of the story unfold. And it also makes for a tightly woven set of interlinked conceptual containers into which Von Triers pours a plethora of ideas.
The book relies on Von Triers symbolic references (although I notice it does not include the beautiful images of the angling flies) but until you have seen the film, it is hard to understand how all these elements, such as canasta, dead insects, trees, sexuality, sex, a cat-o-nine tails, a car exploding, a young girl fit together.
How reliable is Joe the narrator?
The story unfolds, however, in such a way as to leave some viewers wondering how much of it is true, in the world of the fiction that is, and how much Joe is making up, or at least re-telling through her own lens, or through the filter of an unreliable memory (as it is with all memory). At times, one wonders, would the title Pathological Liar be more appropriate because some scenarios are extremely difficult to trust – perhaps it is not unreasonable to imagine viewers feeling compelled to try and work out whether it is the character who is unreliable or the writer who might be writing from a warped perspective. The first of these very difficult-to believe-tales is about Joe and her childhood friend who are on a train competing to see how many men they can each have sex with during the journey. Not only are the numbers unbelievable, but the split second, unspoken agreements that lead in most cases to sex in compartment toilets, demand a high level of ‘suspended belief’ in order to swallow. I didn’t completely trust my own response, which was “this has to be male fantasy, and possibly a homo-erotic one” and talked about my thoughts with several other women, one of whom has a history of addiction, having been through two separate addictive episodes in her life, as well as having supported people with addiction in her work, and who I shall refer to here as Emily since some of what she told me is sensitive. Emily, who spoke candidly to me about managing multiple relationships as well as selling sex for money, felt that the number of men Joe was supposedly meant to have slept with was not always believable, and the train scenario might have been plausible had it not been for the way in which sex was negotiated. She didn’t think it was impossible but said, even during her most active moments, she could not have imagined sleeping as many men as Joe. Her own addiction took over her life to the point where she was not feeding her children properly and was only focused on maintaining contact with the men she was seeing at the time. Over a period of 18 months, Emily had sex with nearly 40 men and was sleeping with up to four a week at the peak of her addiction. At no point did she sleep with more than two in one 24-hour period, not even when selling sex some years ago. Joe, on the other hand, talks about seeing several men each night, opening her door to a new visitor still naked because there is no time to get dressed shortly after another had left. I found Emily’s thoughts about addiction useful to think about in relation to the film and most of our conversation ended up being about that. We also discussed feminine sexuality as a commodity, how women are sometimes bought up to believe it is the most valuable thing about them, something or the only thing to rely on in order to survive. And of course, what that does to a female psyche.
I have not read any of Proust and so had to do a bit of research as it is heavily referenced in the film. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu XI is an important aspect; so much so, some critics have suggested the film is, in fact, a reworking of the book. It is well known for being exceptionally long and is presented in several books, perhaps a bit like Joe’s story which is conveyed in chapters and the film split into two parts. The central character in the book is apparently extremely similar to Proust, both in action and temperament, and Proust was an early and key example of working this way, relying on one’s own life for material, which has become so much more familiar to readers of texts today: “Proust shifted the light a little to alter the slant; or used a basket of characteristics drawn from various friends and acquaintances to create a new fictional person; or matched a steeple from here to an apse from there in order to build a church, set in a landscape elsewhere.” (Barton,1999). The book is also an example of 19th century literature, which demonstrates an understanding of the world using similar concepts found in Freudian analysis, another cultural object in the film.
As I listened to the scenes included in a BBC documentary on YouTube (1990), I was struck by the cadence of the narrator, which sounded remarkably like Joe’s.
Additionally, Proust is known for writing with exceptional clarity about nature, trees, leaves, and the landscape. All of which match up with a main theme in the film; nature, both literally and figuratively, i.e. how we manage our own nature in a constructed world which we witness as a shared interest, and therefore link, between Joe and her father, and alter Joe’s protégé.
Once again, because of Proust’s influence in the film, a viewer might be prompted to ask herself how much blurring of self and other has occurred in the making? And are we in fact meant to be asking ourselves this question as we watch? And if so, why?
A comparative text: The Deep Blue Sea, Terrence Rattigan, c1955
It might be useful to briefly compare the film with Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea, another text which looks at the conflict between human nature and contemporary social norms. The play, written in the 50s just before social mores changed so dramatically during the subsequent decade, is viewed by many as old-fashioned and staid, albeit included in a list of the best-written plays from the 20th century (Rebelatto, 1999). Unlike the episodic Nymphomaniac, it is written in three strict Aristotelian acts so subsequently feels more formal, but it is also about a woman whose actions and choices are out of step with social convention, and begins with her failed suicide attempt. Here too, a male writer created the female role of Hester, reportedly based on one of Rattigan’s male lovers who had ‘successfully’ committed suicide a few years earlier. He denied this link. The play asks audiences to question the way it might judge Hester’s attempted suicide and is rich with subtle and not so subtle references to the restrictive atmosphere in 50s Britain, along with examining the structural apparatus which serve to maintain social order. The play includes characters that represent frailty, passion, various examples from the British class system, church, and the law. These all circle the protagonist, Hester, as she navigates her depression, along with a passionless but loving husband (in the 2011 film version – characterised as most probably gay, albeit suppressed) whom she has deserted and the irresponsible Freddie, who will undoubtedly desert her in turn. It is hard not to interpret both her relationships as emotionally masochistic, arrived at via a deeply repressed society which threatens to punish, delegitimise, and criminalise even the most private aspects of humanity, from sex to depression, to making choices about the time of one’s death. Rattigan is arguably suggesting the repressive nature of the society he is exploring, whoever it pertains to, male or female, gay or straight, in fact, creates a world where one’s life might feel utterly without value. It is interesting to note that Peggy Ashcroft who was the first person to play Hester had very little sympathy for her, interpreting her suicide attempt, and abandonment of a husband who could not love her as she’d hoped to be loved, as selfish rather than the result of depression, anxiety, repression – and a woman in need of treatment. Rattigan’s actors may not have been as forgiving as he, not as modern – thinking as his story. (Perhaps something about this analysis links to Ferdinand Hodler & Valentine Godé-Darel)
Nymphomaniac might at first glance seem a million miles from the play. It is deliberately shocking, uses porn actors as stand-ins for all the sex scenes because they are so gratuitous*, and the play, from our point of view, might appear like the era it was written in, overly uptight, restrictive and formal. However, both texts are exploring similar themes, masochism, the way we define or don’t define mental illness and judge behaviour. Both were written by people who may or may not be drawing heavily on their own lives for material, subject matter, and characters.
Nymphomaniac – the word
There is something odd about the use of the title word. The advertising poster, which Sejersen would been employed to shoot, looks a little like ‘click-bait’ as it shows all the actors in the midst of orgasmic ecstasy. This is incredibly misleading; in actual fact, we see very few of those characters having sex in the film, let alone yelling out in ecstasy, and the focus is very much on Joe not enjoying sex but instead using it as a weapon against herself. The look on her face usually tells a story of bewilderment, pain, misery, and dissatisfaction. Of course, one cannot say for sure where the concept for the poster came from but perhaps it is a sign of the strange relationship between the book, Belongs to Joe, and the film. There are several recent art projects that show women and men mid-orgasm, but the poster lacks the non-commoditised quality of some of these, such as work by Linda Troeller and Marion Schneider. It also contrasts with a scene in Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight (2013) where a late 30 something housewife/mum character (Rachel played by Katherine Hahn) invites a stripper/prostitute (McKenner played by Juno Temple) into her family and eventually visits a client with her, only to feel repelled by the stranger as he ejaculates. Soloway exposes the reality of the situation and we get the impression there is a significant contrast between it, and any fantasies Rachel may have harboured.
The film, unlike the poster, is gritty and dirty. The acting is not always highly polished. At times it is astonishingly believable, at others it is fragmented and alienating. The mis-en-scene gives an impression of dirtiness, sordidness; there is a clinical distance from beauty, and certainly from any ideal or romantic notion. And perhaps this disconnect is one of the issues with Sejersen’s book. It is shot in the style of a highly polished commercial. It is exceptionally beautiful but without the tight-layered structure that exists in the film, and none of the underlying pain Joe is evidently living with.
Academic, Carol Groneman (nd) writes in the Journal of Women and Culture in Society, Vol.19, “In the nineteenth century…[ ]…nymphomania was believed to be a specific organic disease, classifiable, with an assumed set of symptoms, causes, and treatments. Like alcoholism, kleptomania, and pyromania – diseases that were identified in the mid-nineteenth century – a diagnosis of nymphomania was based on exhibited behaviour. “Excessive” female sexual desire is, however, a much more ambiguous concept than habitual drunkenness, shoplifting, or setting fires. Consider the following cases of nymphomania diagnosed in the second half of the nineteenth century….” Groneman goes on to describe women who merely liked sex, simply wanted to have sex with their husbands occasionally, or were indeed suffering from forms of schizophrenia (itself a word that may one day lose its value as doctors find more accurate ways to describe mental illnesses).
At one point in the film, Joe insists to members of a therapy group, she is not a sex addict, she is a nymphomaniac and proud to own the word. I just can’t work out what Von Triers’ is saying in this scene or with his chosen title. Why is he using a word that is out-dated, was constructed by men to imply female sexuality is an illness and used ultimately referring to any woman who engaged in more sex than was seemingly the correct amount for the societies in which it has been used?
The film is complex and engaging and asks some valid questions of society and humanity, but one is left at the end with a vision of a battered, bruised and diseased vagina that overrides everything else. It is really difficult not to assign an armchair analysis to Von Triers, and perhaps his view of society, and his relationship to the origin of (wo)man.
Belongs to Joe
The book is stunningly pretty. The photography is expertly shot, the aesthetic choices superbly beautiful, everything about it is sublime although for anyone not expecting extremely graphic images perhaps quite shocking. They do make sex seem remarkably clean and shiny, however. I hope to be influenced by some aspects, namely putting together a very lovely object. A review on Gup by Daniel Meads gives a clear overview: “Rich with symbolism, the book begins with an image of a stack of cards from a game of solitaire, a game connected with loneliness, isolation and Joes mother. It also doubles as an index to the rest of her life story. The loneliness connected with her mother is counterpointed by Joe’s love of her father, as shown through the inclusion of a photographic herbarium, a possession that he gave to her. The herbarium takes a symbolic break from the aesthetic of the rest of the book as though it is separate object inserted into the book’s narrative. This makes this moment of connection and love feel odd and alien to the rest of her story. Joes’ is an emotional story, which Sejersen’s images balance with their lack of visual emotion, though the book is not without a sense of humour, especially when viewed in the context of having seen the films. (Who can forget the humour of the silent duck?) A few light points ease up what is otherwise a dark descent into degradation, violence, and destruction.” (Meads, 2017)
Nevertheless, it seems that the photographer’s obvious link to some aspects of fashion photography heavily influences the work. I don’t think fashion should be looked down on as it seems to be in some quarters. Viviane Sassen is one example who seems to do a decent job of creating images for both, and bridging any divide one imagines exists. But in Belongs to Joe the actors don’t look even remotely real, they look like models. In the film, we see their vulnerability, flaws, ugliness. In the book, they are flawless and so impossible to forgive or empathise with. Young Joe (Stacy Martin) looks absolutely nothing like the gangly, uncomfortable character she plays in the film but rather more like a film star paid to entice viewers in a designer perfume commercial. In one particular image she looks out at us, perhaps narcissistically, aware of us looking back, apparently mid-coitus; the broken fourth wall does indeed add another layer to the original text, but given the make-up, lighting, and commoditised styling, I’m simply not sure it’s a layer worth adding. And so, I wonder if these images will last the course, like Horst’s of the male form. Perhaps they will, as Sejersen has received plenty of positive validation about the work. The darkness, degradation, the questions we are forced to ask even though we may receive no answers in the film are part of what saves it from being merely a pornographic fantasy. Sejersen seems to have stripped the narrative of much of that and turned the forms into empty vessels that look somewhat like products. Art which succeeds in allowing the real to poke through is the kind of art I want to look at and maybe even one day make. I didn’t see it in Belongs to Joe but I have spent a lot of time thinking about the book anyway. I believe there are potentially moments in the film, particularly in the last scene where we are confronted with it. Looking at these two texts has been an interesting exercise for me as I think about the differences between photography and moving image formats.
“Though the current, shorter edit (the two volumes come in at about 4 hours, though the director’s cut reportedly runs 5.5 hours) contains only a few explicit sex scenes, these were all performed by porn doubles. “They’ve done a lot of post-production,” the actress explains. “In the 5.5 hours version, anyway, everything is mixed, with the porn actors having actual sex but with our faces, it’s very well done. But we didn’t do any of it. SPOILER — In the S&M scenes with Jamie Bell it’s not a fake bum, it’s a real woman who was willing to be hit, not with a real whip but still… END SPOILER.””(Hoeij, 2014)
References – accessed 5 December 2017
Rebellato, D. 1999 Introduction to Deep Blue Sea (in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea 1953)