Nymphomaniac is a 2013 film broken up into Vols. I and II by Lars Von Trier, a controversial Danish director. The film is set is an undisclosed part of Europe, where all the main characters speak English.
The film is about a middle aged self-described "nymphomaniac" named Joe who recounts her life story (which mostly consists of her recounting sexual encounters) to a man named Seligman who found her in alleyway after being beaten and takes her to his apartment. The film alternates between flashbacks of the stories Joe tells and discussion between Joe and Seligman in his dingy apartment about Joe's narration.
The scenes I wish to discuss is found in the chapter (the film is divided into chapters) subtitled "Dangerous Men." The scene begins with Joe walking through a park towards her apartment building. She walks past a group of Black men speaking a foreign language. She narrates that she wishes to have "a sexual situation in which verbal communication was impossible." We see her watching the group of men on the street corner below her apartment. In the next scene, we a white man visit Joe's apartment and we learn he is an "interpreter." She asks him if he is a "master of African languages" and he says that yes. he does "have a basis." Joe then asks the man to approach one of the men in the group and ask him if he wants to have sex with her and the "interpreter" nervously agrees. The "interpreter" returns and hands Joe piece paper saying it has written on it a date and place, and says that he can't be held responsible for the "interpretation."
The next scene we find Joe walking into a cheap motel room. She sits and waits. Then two men from the group she was watching enter the room talking in a foreign language. She narrates over the scene that she didn't know why the man brought someone else and that she assumed the other man was his brother. The men say nothing to Joe but as they continue to talk, they begin picking her up and moving her body around. It seems they are discussing how best to engage in double penetration with her. As they continue to talk their mood becomes more elevated between the men to the point of an argument. Eventually we see Joe engaging in sex with one of them as the other man begins to fuck her as well. The men continue to argue while fucking her until one of the men throws Joe off of him and on to the bed.
The scene progresses to the two men standing and continuing to argue in their "African language" while Joe sits on the bed. Her face is framed by the two men's erect and semi-erect penises, we only see the men from the chest down to their thighs. We see Joe look bored and disappointed, then collects her clothes and the scene ends.
We are then brought into Seligman's apartment where the two are discussing the incident. Joe proceeds to call the men "negros" to which Seligman says its not PC to call them that, and Joe responds that such language policing undermines the democracy of society.
There is a lot to unpack here, so I'll start with the subtitle "Dangerous Men." The section isn't just about Joe's encounter with the Black men, also present in that section of the movie is the story of how Joe goes to see a (white) man who ties her up and whips her to the point of bleeding. The Black men who congregate below her apartment as made to seem foreboding and distant. Joe watches them from afar. The "interpreter" is uneasy about idea of Joe meeting with the men for sex. Given that men can't verbally communicate in any meaningful way, their "danger" comes solely from their racialized beings.
The fact that she hires a white "interpreter" to speak with the men is bizarre. Joe is originally drawn to the men because she wants to have sex where verbal communication is impossible. For whatever reason, Joe thinks that the man from the group she desires speaks no English. The scene gets even more ridiculous when the white "interpreter of African languages" visits. It seems that this man is so well versed in the hundreds of African languages there are that he could just walk up to a random African person and communicate to them in their language. It's a ridiculous assumption.
The sexual nature of the racialization and racism can't be ignored. As is common in racist pornography and music videos of today, Black people are reduced to their bodies parts, and especially their sexualized body parts. Those sexualized body parts are usually assumed to be naturally large (i.e. penises and buttocks). In Volume I of the film, there is a part where Joe discusses penises while close-up shots of men's penises are shown. As she talks she says that she went to the "country of of big Black cocks" while pictures of Black men's penises are shown, and then says that she also went to "the country of small yellow cocks."
The camera hangs on the two men's large penises in the motel room longer than any other penises in the film, harking back to the racist assumption that Black men have large penises. We hear them arguing face-to-face while Joe's body is framed between the two men's erect and semi-erect penises. We can't see their faces, only their penises. The men become objects of sexual objectification to both Joe and the viewer. They become reduced to their penises.When other penises are shown in the film, they never really become part of the cinematography they way the two men in the hotel room did.
The men can't verbally communicate in a way we understand. Although we can't understand them, we know that they get angry and argue with each other. They seem to care more about arguing than fucking Joe. We are left confused and unsure about the men. Joe can only communicate with them through a white man. I don't even think the men (at least one of the men) were speaking a real language. They are "dangerous" but we never "hear" why. It's common in many films to render the Other or racialized characters as mute, or as people who we can't understand. The assumption is that they are so different from us that we couldn't understand them anyway. The white "interpreter" must communicate, or we must listen to Joe's assumptions about what they men want.
I would be amiss if I said Joe only objectified these men, most men she had sex wit in the film were objectified, but the scene with Joe and the Black men is notable because of the racialized nature of it and how it brings up certain racist tropes.
At first I was outraged by the racism of the whole thing but the more I thought about, the more I began to wonder if it was intentionally racist, if the director used the story to highlight's Joe's own racism and objectification. But the part about the "African languages" interpreter and the emphasis on the the two men's penises in the scene show that it is more about using racist assumptions of Black people. Even an issue like sex and sexuality is ripe for racialized thinking.