The 1990s and 2000s witnessed an upsurge in arthouse material that boldly and courageously probed eroticism, with glistening and often profound insights into the role that lovemaking plays in the psychological and emotional lives of individuals -- consider, for example, Louis Malle’s Damage, Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy, Catherine Breillat’s Romance, or Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher.
Christian Molina’s Spanish-language erotic drama Diary of a Nymphomaniac would desperately like to be included in that group, but it unfortunately represents an ugly and pretentious blight on the face of its chosen subgenre. It tells, simply and straightforwardly (and with very little depth), of Valerie (Belen Fabra), a young woman in her late twenties stricken with the unusual condition summarized by the title. She loves sex -- loves it to the point of addiction -- juggles multiple interchangeable lovers, picks up strangers at train stops for quickies, and experiments with every conceivable variation on intercourse that one can dream up. The drama lurches forward when Val experiences deep-seated misgivings about her chosen passion, and comes to the conclusion that something is deeply wrong with her.
Despite her beloved grandmother’s (Geraldine Chaplin) assertions that Valerie needs only to be true to herself, the young woman soldiers on with her crisis of conscience, and begins a search for greater romantic significance, including a rotten relationship with a psychopath and a dispiriting prostitution job in a brothel for high rollers. The young woman’s cyclical journey ultimately brings her back to the point of re-embracing nymphomania with a renewed sense of self-assurance.
Though competently acted, well scored, and lushly photographed, the film functions as a ham-handed message movie, and the most penetrating insight into its message arrives early on, when Valerie laments what she perceives as one of the world’s greatest hypocrisies: if a man sleeps with every woman in sight, he’s considered macho; if a woman sleeps with every man in sight, she’s considered a slut. Molina and his scribes spend much of the picture none too subtly railing against this double standard, by depicting Val at her happiest when she’s hopping from liaison to liaison sans a care in the world. The filmmakers paint the journey as a form of spiritual and physical liberation and an assertion of sexual equality. At one point, the grandmother character looks back over her life and advises Valerie, “If I could do it again, I would definitely f--- more.”
The film is essentially equating sexual liberation and gender equality with free love -- a dubious and chauvinistic assertion at best. It depicts encounter after encounter between Valerie and her male partners, but never stops to consider the possibility that men in Valerie’s life are taking psychological, emotional, and sexual advantage of her -- she’s in charge of everything, and by God, she’s loving it. A multidimensional drama would probe the ways that intimacy with multiple partners impacts Valerie on both psychological and emotional levels. But that never happens. We’re merely handed a female character who worships sex, questions these feelings, and returns to worshipping sex with increased confidence. We have no idea how it impacts her, or if it impacts her internally, shy of functioning as a vehicle for freedom and self-fulfillment threatened when someone attempts to possess Valerie’s body. Not only does this shallow and two-dimensional message threaten to drive the entire film into the territory of exploitation, it demonstrates extreme and laughable naivete about the complexity of feminine sexuality.
The original novel Diario di una Ninfomania may have emerged from the pen of a female writer, but this adaptation was directed by a man, and nothing could be less surprising. The controversial ideas at its core seem very rooted in 1970s sexual liberation -- specifically the notion that many women, like Valerie, secretly crave sex without emotional connection, and the idea that social freedom would mean losing the shackles that bind these desires. The film purports to function as a liberation-themed feminist parable, but in truth, the material seems shaped into a machismo-fueled fantasy of how the ideal modern woman should think and act. leave a comment --Nathan Southern