As much as I despise winter, I have to admit that, besides being a good reminder of why snow is the greatest abomination known to mankind, this season is good for settling down and watching those movies that you’ve been planning to watch since forever. Of course, as this is an article written by yours truly, I will not be discussing one of those movies. No, this is a movie my friend brought up to me randomly one night and, not knowing what I was getting into, I streamed it. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
With a title like Diary of a Nymphomaniac, I’m sure that the images you’re getting in your head right now are very similar to the ones I had. Indeed, just about every review of the movie we found online had something to say about whether or not the female lead, played by Belén Fabra, was indeed ‘fuckable’ and how it was completely boring. By this point, we were both thinking that this was some sort of art nouveau porno and perhaps, in some respects, it is, but what it isn’t is apologetic. If you are uncomfortable with the discussion of domestic abuse, prostitution, or sexuality in general, you will not like this movie. If you are looking for a porno, you will be exceedingly disappointed in this movie.
If one was to look for a description of this movie, one would be quite put out that there’s nary a decent explanation of the plot anywhere readily accessible. Even Wikipedia is lackluster in this, stating only that
“Val, a young, middle-class woman with a strong desire for sex, finds herself destitute after an abusive boyfriend runs off with all her money, and begins to earn a living as a high-class call girl but finds herself enjoying this life more than she could have hoped – or feared.”
That’s it. And while correct in an informational sense, the contextualization is completely awry. [Spoilers Below]
Protagonist Val lives with her French grandmother while working a 9-to-5 job in Barcelona. Her grandmother is poignant in her life because she constantly expresses that she wants Val to enjoy her youth and express herself in a way that suits her, to not pay attention to what others may think. Val finds her niche in expressing herself through her body and the act of sex, taking on countless partners all of which are okay with her choice and understand that this is no-strings attached: it’s a mutually beneficial relationship between her and the men she chooses to be with. One of her partners, a Muslim man, beautifully compares her to Ishmael, a horse from Arabian legend that could not be tamed and indeed, she cannot.
However, after her grandmother dies Val comes to the harsh realization that she’s a nymphomaniac and it may, in fact, be ruining her life. With the support of her best friend—and the “support” of losing her previous job—she sets out to find not only new employment, but a more ‘normal’ lifestyle. She receives two job offers: one from an Italian man who runs a fashion agency and the other from a Spanish man who is the head of a very prestigious company. Feeling immediately attracted to the Spaniard, Jamie, she desperately hopes she can see him again and is more than happy when he invites her on a business dinner. By the end of the dinner, she may not have a job, but she does have a boyfriend, one that she feels she can actually form a connection to and that makes her feel ‘normal’ for once in her life. Indeed, he is very kind to her, showering her with gifts and making it known that he pays attention to what she says. All is wonderful, until she gets a job offer from the aforementioned Italian. Happily, she takes him up on the job, as she is still looking for employment, however Jamie is less than happy and becomes huffy. He apologizes in the morning and she sets off for work… until Jamie comes in later, drunk and accusing her boss of sleeping with ‘his wife’. Frightened, Val tries to pacify him, but when she returns home she states she’s had enough of his bullshit and threatens to leave. Breaking down, he begs her to stay and not wanting to lose this love of her life, she relents. However, things between them keep escalating—one time he invites a hooker over (that she ends up paying for) so they can have a threesome, then denies paternity of their unborn child— until with the help of her best friend she moves out. Before they leave, Jamie catches them in the act and becomes violent, but they escape.
Val takes refuge at her best friend’s apartment until she can get back on her feet, which is harder than either of them could have guessed it could be. Every time Val looks outside, it seems as though Jamie is watching her, stalking her. The constant feeling of being unsafe and unvalued is so overwhelming that in her depression, Val attempts to jump from the several stories up apartment, but cannot bring herself to do it. With the time and devotion of her friends, Val eventually picks herself back up and sets out to find herself again. To express herself again.
To accomplish this, she finds a family in the local brothel and the fellow employees. Although they’re all there for a different reason—Val becomes particularly attached to a woman who works there to pay for the upbringing of her son who lives in a different country— Val instantly feels comfortable with the work. Being able to explore her sexuality once more makes her bloom, makes her stronger, but it doesn’t make her invulnerable. She is mistreated by one of her customers that is insistent on her marrying him and once more her heart is broken by someone who doesn’t value her has she valued him. This time, though, she is equipped with the tools to leave the situation and when tragedy strikes her fellow sex workers, Val decides that this is not the kind of work she wishes to do, and leaves. The movie ends on a high note of her accepting her sexual nature and embracing it, and honestly I have never felt so uplifted by a movie.
By Diary’s end, my friend and I both were sobbing, but in the best way possible. For all the worry that existed in my mind when I started watching, I could not have ever fathomed the respect and realness this movie presented me with. Despite the sex scenes being, well, explicit sex scenes, never once did I feel like the movie was created for the sole purpose of watching people bone. Everything was so tastefully handled and every character was a three-dimensional person. You hated them because they were legitimate assholes. You might not like what a character was doing, but you could see where they were coming from. Never once during the movie is Val looked down upon for her views of sexuality. She isn’t immediately labeled a slut or a whore. In the movie when people begin to resort to such name-calling, it’s clear that they are only doing it because they have lost power over her and it’s a last ditch effort to regain said power. Her fiancée does it once he realizes how close she is to leaving him and tries to lower her self-worth with it, the brothel owner does it when Val tries to leave the business for almost exactly the same reasons. Besides that, it isn’t looked down upon, in fact it’s respected. Val knows what she wants and so she does it, there’s certainly something to be admired about that.
The issue of domestic abuse is also handled very tastefully. Jamie does not start out like a complete douchenozzle; in fact, I really liked him when he first appeared. He was quite literally the biggest dork in existence and it was clear he cared about Val. However, the decent into abuse was slow, but noticeable. Realistic. I also appreciate that none of the blame for the abuse was placed on Val. Dude was a dick and it was left at that. Too often the victims of abuse are blamed for their abuser’s transgressions, so to see such a well put together movie ignore that unfortunate norm was very nice.
Also, Val’s best friend was great. In the way they chose to live their lives, they were foils, but there was such a massive amount of respect for each other. For example, when Val stated that she was working in a brothel, her friend acted a little uncertain at first, but supported her (while pocketing a dildo Val had offered her). And while Val is not necessarily a proponent of living a more normal lifestyle, at the end where her friend finally finds a love, she is more than happy for her. They’re such pillars in each other’s lives and it’s great to see that over the cattiness that is so prevalent in media today.
Though the Wikipedia article is lacking in plot synopsis, they do have a quote that I want to dispel. Jonathan Henderson of Cinelogue is quoted as saying,
“[T]he film…in its heavy-handed crudeness…plays out like a typical, manipulative melodrama. …Another element that plagues the film is its unrealistic depictions of misogynistic men. [It] is marked by an overtly formulaic script, which too neatly follows the three-act structure with a pattern of introduction, elation, conflict, descent and recovery. The film’s pacing problems are exacerbated by a profusion of abbreviated, deficient scenes which interrupt the flow of the narrative. [Belén] Fabra’s performance during [her] emotional scenes is nearly strong enough to make me forget about the manipulative mawkishness behind them”
Whereas I am not a film scholar and cannot really comment on how “formulaic” the script was, I can say that Mister Henderson seems to be harboring some misogynistic thoughts of his own if he feels like any of this was outrageously manipulative. What exactly would the audience be manipulated into thinking? That all men are terrible? That would obviously be false as there are several men in the movie that are portrayed in just as good light as the female characters. Many of Val’s partners are quite kind, but the ones that are not shown positively quite clearly do not deserve to be shown positively. The depictions are not unrealistic. Indeed, it is almost too uncomfortable when faced with how realistic the portrayals actually are. Each character could be the everyman or the everywoman: there is nothing that sets each character apart from each other outside of getting to know said character.
I would highly recommend this movie. Despite all the negative press it seems to receive, it carries an excellent message to women of our, and any, era: to enjoy yourself and do what you love. To explore what makes you happy and embrace it, and to surround yourself with people that will support you and respect you for your choices, even if they do not fully agree with them. If you’re interested in finding this movie it can be found on YouTube, however if you’re not fond of subtitles (as the movie is recorded in French/Spanish) you may be out of luck unless the English re-release will actually be available in the future.