[CW diet talk, discussion of consensual sex]
Two recent films, Nymphomaniac and Concussion, spend ample time exploring the marginalized sexualities of their (thin) female protagonists. Joe (Charlotte Gainsboug/Stacy Martin), the titular character of von Trier’s epic, labels herself as a nymphomaniac and constructs her life around her insatiable libido; Abby (Robin Weigert), the heroine of Passon’s directorial debut, is a lesbian who subverts her life as a mainstream upper middle-class homemaker by involving herself in sex work. Both women have fat sex partners over the course of their respective stories, neither of whom function as a source of comedy or disgust.
A common observation of fat characters is that they possess an inappropriate sexuality relative to thin characters in the same film, either lacking in sexual desire or experience (based on the assumption that nobody wants to have sex with fat people) or being too assertive or indulgent with regards to their sexuality (based on the assumption that fat people desire more and control themselves less than thin people). Fat people in movies are often treated as de facto repugnant or pathetic, but even more so when they are seen as sexual beings. A portrayal of fat people experiencing lust the same as thin people, even being accepted as a thin person’s lover, is enough to make these movies stand out as unusually fair-minded with regards to body diversity. However, both F and Woman #1 are portrayed as less exciting than their thin counterparts, and evoke a sense of family and domesticity, elements which the protagonists of both films are trying to avoid or escape.
Nymphomaniac presents a series of flashbacks, where Joe relates her story Seligman (Stellan Skaarsgard), an asexual bookworm who compares the details of her life to his various intellectual pursuits. As the title suggests, a large portion of these flashbacks deal with Joe’s sex life. Nearing the end of Volume 1, almost 2 hours in, I found myself getting bored with scene after scene of Joe having rather vanilla sex with male partners, mostly young and thin. F’s arrival was perfectly timed. Joe describes a time when her sex life was a perfect balance of harmonizing elements, like a polyphonic organ piece, with F (Nicolas Bro) as the bass voice. If memory serves, this is the first time we see someone go down on Joe, shown in extreme closeup. F focuses on Joe and her satisfaction. “Without words, he knew exactly what I wanted, where he should touch me and what he should do. The most sacred goal for F was my orgasm.” Because he is so trustworthy and stable, Joe privileges him with activities she does not her other sexual partners. While she explains this in voice over, we see him gently washing her in a bathtub.
The entire time we see Joe and F together, he is clothed and she is naked, heightening the contrast between their ages and body sizes. F is not Joe’s only extragenerational partner, but he is certainly the most paternal. Immediately after seeing them have sex, we cut to an image of Joe sitting on F’s lap, giggling as he tells her a fairytale. F’s arrival in Joe’s story immediately follows the death of her father (Christian Slater); perhaps it is not coincidental that she would so fondly remember a lover who would be “reassuring” and a “foundation,” while so strongly feeling the absence in her life of her dad, who provided her with a sense of security and consistency. F also contrasts with H, a previous lover of Joe’s who leaves his wife and children– his role as a father– to be with her. We have no information of who F is outside of his relationship with Joe, but if he is a father (or some other form of caregiver), he manages to merge the elements of that identity with being Joe’s lover.
F is accepting of Joe’s multiple partners and is actively in deference to her lifestyle, as he often arrives early and patiently waits for her in his car (which was bought used, she points out) with a bouquet of flowers, or in Joe’s living room while she has sex with someone else in the bedroom. F’s patience an example of one of Nymphomaniac‘s strong points: the refreshingly personal and straightforward portrayal of deviations (so to speak) from normative sexuality: monogamous, possessive, not extractable from idealized romantic love. However, F seems emasculated and powerless when Joe compares him to the other members of Joe’s sexual polyphony– and this comparison is explicitly illustrated, in split screen. G (Christian Gade Bjerrum), designated the second voice, is “the only one [Joe] had to and wanted to wait for.” Instead of arriving early, G stands on her threshold when she invites him in, entering as he pleases. Joe finds this exciting because it takes away her control of the situation; she compares G to a predatory wild cat. The sex that she has with G is rough and feral, polarized from F’s “predictable” lovemaking. The two create a spectrum of sexual experience that is beyond limited descriptions of a binary of straight/gay (sometimes expanding to dominant/submissive). As we see an image of a leopard killing a deer, representing G, we also see F waiting in his car for Joe to see him. In between these two is the cantus firmus, Jerome, the closest character to a typical One True Love a viewer might expect to see in a film that focuses on a woman’s love life. These series of images also show Joe’s face while she has sex with them. With G she is wantonly excited; with Jerome she seems transported by the intimacy and soulfulness of their lovemaking; but with F she appears placid and peaceful.
Joe describes F as essential to her happiness, but ultimately unsatisfying on his own; Jerome, however, she entreats to “fill all [her] holes,” to complete her, and the fate of the film brings them back together again and again. Even if F displays generosity beyond her other lovers and is seemingly supernatural in his ability to anticipate her desires, what he offers is ultimately incomplete on its own.
Concussion‘s opening sequence is composed of voice overs of women talking about maintaining their aging bodies and images of a gym, showing a spin class of fit women in slow motion, sneaking competitive glances at each other. The film is about a lot of things– queer assimilation, aging– but the body is a prominent and recurring theme. Abby’s dissatisfaction with her life as a stay-at-home is brought to a head by a concussion she suffers accidentally at the hands of her son; there is an early scene of her running on a treadmill until she vomits. She deals with the dissatisfaction by going back to work in New York City, then patronizing sex workers, then finally becoming a sex worker herself, seeing women clients at the condo she is renovating. Like her protagonist, director Stacie Passon is a lesbian, and Concussion does step away from the normative male gaze in some significant ways, including showing sex between women who do not have all the characteristics required to be a woman with a sex life by most films. Some of the women Abby has sex with are older, some have extensive tattoos, one client has a mastectomy scar, and– in case you haven’t guessed where I’m going with this– another is fat.
Abby’s fat client (Daria Rae Feneis) is only known as Woman #1, all clients of Abby’s only being referred to by numbers. It would be easy to see someone patronizing a sex worker as a sign of their inability to attract a partner without the exchange of money, and that sex workers will do anything (or anyone) as long as they’re paid. However, the film makes clear that Abby wants to have sex with Woman #1. Abby is very particular about her clients: she is not willing to go to their homes, and she insists on having coffee with them first, even though The Girl (Emily Kinney), her manager, screens them. Abby even rejects her first potential client for doing homework while she waits for their rendezvous. Abby wants to have sex with Woman #1 as an individual, not solely because she wants (or needs) the money.
Woman #1 embodies some characteristics often seen in fat film characters. She initiates the conversation awkwardly, talking about a Women’s Studies class she is taking where she has to draw her vulva and talk about her drawing in every class. She even brings a folder of these drawings to show Abby, who politely declines, recreating a common dynamic in films where a fat person’s social inappropriateness is highlighted or regulated by a thinner person. (Slight tangent: as someone who has taken over a dozen Women’s and Gender Studies courses– none at NYU, granted– this class exercise strikes me as absurd.) Women #1 describes drawing her vulva as having a force field around it, because she is 23 and has never had sex or even been kissed. The character comes across as shy and awkward (although she is very pretty), and her lack of experience is never explicitly linked to her weight, but given the setting and sexual/relational experience of the other characters, her late-bloomer status sticks out like a sore thumb. Women #1’s appointment with Abby– a first time for both of them– is quietly drawn out with tension and tenderness. Abby reassures her that she doesn’t have to do anything, can stop at any time, and Abby will do things that she wants to do. Woman #1 is still awkward, however; she neglects to take off her backpack, and after their kiss, she remarks that Abby “smells like oranges.”
During a subsequent visit, Abby finds the ingredients for a Master Cleanse in Woman #1’s bag, which her mother has given her to “start [her] off.” Abby assumes a maternal role in this scene, overriding Woman #1’s mother’s influence by giving her three books to read: Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic The Second Sex (“the Bible”), a book on vegetarianism, and a collection of Gandhi’s writings, which Abby describes as “an excellent book for weight loss.” (Another slight tangent. Overall I liked this movie, but the script rubbed me the wrong way at times, this line possibly being the worst example. I trust, reader, that I don’t have to go in-depth as to why it’s hugely problematic for rich white Americans to appropriate aspects of anti-colonial resistance to support their own assimilation into a beauty standard. I confess I’ve never read Gandhi’s writings, what about them makes them excellent for weight loss? Is Woman #1 supposed to fast? Because that slows your metabolism down. Is she supposed to use white guilt as an inspiration to be self-denying in her food choices? Does Gandhi talk about tips for cutting carbs at some point?) She then encourages Woman #1 to throw away her cleanse materials, “because that shit will kill you.” Woman #1 glows as she looks at Abby, who is treating her as a human being whose health needs to be prioritized, not a fatty problem to be eradicated using any means possible. I’m guessing that she experiences the latter attitude from the other people in her life more frequently than the former. We never find out if she herself wants to lose weight, though.
The third and final session we see between Abby and Woman #1 shows a progress in both of their explorations of sexuality. Their attitude with each other is relaxed and intimate; the camera is closer to them than ever. Woman #1 says that she read the books Abby loaned her, but didn’t lose any weight. This scene subverts the expected story beats that Woman #1 would have lost weight, or that a dramatic moment would occur between them (Abby giving some inspirational speech, Woman #1 revealing a dark secret), as the two laugh over this fact and move on with their conversation, as Abby strokes her hair affectionately. Woman #1 also says that she wants to move on from their arrangement and “try something new, like, maybe a guy.” The other woman who Abby loses to a man is Sam (Maggie Siff), another mom from her social group who shares a passionate liason with Abby, and understands her dissatisfaction, but ultimately decides to stay with her husband. Sam, like Woman #1, ties Abby to her inescapable role as a mother.
Losing her client is paralleled with scenes of Abby’s children waiting for her to pick them up at school, her failing to be a mother. As Abby has chosen to be unfaithful by having sex with women other than her wife, Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence), she is also unfaithful to her role in her family in that she is mothering someone who is not one of her children, neglecting them in the process.
As so much of the energy and rhetoric of the needs of LGBT folks is channeled into marriage equality, and the “we’re just like you” message, there is a dearth of questioning the merits of a white picket house in the suburbs as a desirable goal. Marriage equality and liberal social values allow Abby and Kate to have their American dream in an affluent suburb, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Abby would find that dream ultimately as hollow as Lester does in American Beauty. (Considering this film is about college-educated white folks, the attainability of that goal unfortunately doesn’t figure in to its critique.) Concussion‘s main story raises some radical questions about values and stories that we take for granted. This spirit is extended to Woman #1 to an extent– Abby finds her desirable, she isn’t punished for not losing weight– but some toxic presumptions remains intact: the inherent awkwardness of fat people; the inherent struggle to not be fat, even when failing to meet that goal comes as no surprise.
Concussion is a bit unrefined and Nymphomaniac a bit arduous, but ultimately it was a pleasure to watch both them. Even in their failings, it’s always refreshing to consider a film’s drawbacks through a feminist lens that called for more consideration and nuance than “hey, this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.” Both have interesting things to say about women’s sexuality, and what it means for a woman to search for happiness and fulfillment. The combination of these ideas puts both protagonists at odds with domesticity. However, even in searching for personal evolution through sex, the characters find themselves in dynamics that parallel their roles as members of their respective families, both with fat lovers. Despite the radical portrayal of fat people as desirable, the films ultimately don’t go far enough, and saddle these characters with drawbacks that can neither offer liberation or stand up when compared with more normatively attractive partners.