Our writer-director is many things, but he's no scenic sadist, and Seligman's water-stained bachelor pad plays host to kaleidoscopic memories, flashbacks and fantastic imaginings. While the experts of Antichrist and Melancholia are situated by relationship, Seligman discovers Joe by chance in a glacial alleyway. The milquetoast figure offers to call for help, and her recoil is feral. Changing tack, he asks if there's anything she wants. Tea with milk. A matter-of-fact assertion that he doesn't serve tea in alleys lures her into his abode. (Kudos to whomever selected Rammstein's ominous “Führe Mich” as the film's signature track.) Safely tucked in Seligman's decidedly unsexy pajamas, our bruised, anhedonic heroine assents to a confession of sorts.
Joe's curiosity about a yonic fishing lure and Seligman's impassioned monologue on fly-fishing clinches the bargain, and thus begins “Chapter One: The Compleat Angler.” Amidst childhood memories—ranging from precocious masturbation techniques to nature walks with her doctor father (Christian Slater)—interjections by fly-fishing expert Seligman analogize her experiences. This back-and-forth continues throughout the film and highlights von Trier's specialization-of-knowledge fetish. Joe first notes the importance of ridding herself of virginity as “a young nymph.” In the first of many intentionally dreary pornographic scenes, young Joe (Stacy Martin) loses it with a moped-riding bad boy she calls J (Shia LaBeouf). Here, von Trier experiments with symbolism, effectively illustrating how an underwhelming first time culminates in a mathematical formula catalyzing lifelong obsession. Seligman's revelation that her carnal equation references Fibonacci numbers doesn't interest her, and she moves on to post-virginal history.
Free of vestigial restraint, young Joe and her BFF, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), run a literal train. Boarding without passes, the duo engages in a contest of sexual conquest. Joe wins by relieving unwilling passenger S (Jens Albinus, The Idiots)—who's rushing home to impregnate his wife—of his load via oral sex. Seligman doesn't instantly recognize her “reprehensible” nature, but his feminine offering of a Jewish pastry (served with a cake fork) propels the story forward.
In “Chapter Two: Jerome,” Joe recalls co-founding a sex-positive sorority dedicated to combating a “love-fixated society.” The group's ritualized meetings—wherein chants of “Mea maxima vulva” are accompanied on piano by Satanic tritone—serve as prelude to love's power to convert even nonbelievers. Except Joe. But her solitary quest to eschew love while embracing eroticism requires financing. As a medical school dropout, she seeks work as an assistant at a publishing house. It turns out her first sexual partner, J aka Jerome, is subbing for a sick uncle. He hires her, propositions her, gets rejected, and their relationship becomes a subtle power struggle.
Love is worse than blind for Joe; it's a distortion that humiliates. The erotic means saying yes, and love is merely “lust with jealousy attached.” She takes up walking again and masturbates to a jigsaw puzzle of Jerome-like parts on the subway. The specialization theme rears up again as areligious sentimentalist Seligman accuses her of defending, rather than revealing, her personality. Unfazed, she likens her cunt to the automatic doors of a supermarket and recounts studies in the realm of the big black (and small yellow) cock; a diverse phallic slide show ushers in “Chapter Three: Mrs. H.”
Accommodating up to 10 sexual encounters every day inspires Joe to devise a random method for treatment of lovers. It works for a while, but an attempt at reverse psychology brings “sticky bastard” Mr. H (Hugo Speer), his wife (portrayed with histrionic aplomb by Uma Thurman) and their children in to see “the whoring bed.” When Seligman notes that addiction starves empathy, Joe stubbornly maintains her callous nature.
The visually monochromatic “Chapter Four: Delirium” underscores Joe's vigil at her father's deathbed. Her retrieval of ash tree leaves in winter introduces a touching moment of clarity and affection between daughter and Dad. But intensifying dementia and blankness accompany his demise, and Joe's breaks are spent having joyless sex with orderlies.
The final segment, “Chapter Five: The Little Organ School,” explores Joe's polyphony of lovers. Predictable, ritualistic F (Nicolas Bro) is the foundation. Commanding, virile G (Christian Gade Bjerrum) is the left-hand second voice. And cantus firmus, or the fixed song, is Jerome—a preexisting melody she reclaims in this volume's final love scene. In contrast to its dreary, desperate predecessors, this sexual encounter approaches eroticism. But this is a Lars von Trier film—well, half of one—and horror reveals itself as the climax fails to arrive.
Nymphomaniac's core audience will likely be fervent fans, although its titillating ad campaign will undoubtedly disappoint a few misled Skinemax devotees. But if the sensation that only von Trier's films can arouse—of being simultaneously provoked, intoxicated and disturbed—is your kink, expect an inexorable pull toward both volumes. Once you’ve screened the first half, questions like “Is either narrator reliable?” and “What happens with Jerome?” will plague you. Besides, it's a lot easier to accept a four-hour, two-part film when its second volume features Willem Dafoe.