Embattled Dutch auteur Lars von Trier's “Depression Trilogy”—Antichrist, Melancholia and now Nymphomaniac—culminates in a revelatory and arguably feminist existentialist fairy tale. Admittedly, it's more Grimms' than Aesop.
Antichrist is a magical realist horror show, and Melancholia is a Wagnerian sci-fi epic. Triptych finale Nymphomaniac is an existentialist torture “porn” double-feature. Released in two parts, Vol. I left the audience at terror-struck anticlimax as protagonist Joe fails to achieve orgasm. The psychodrama of Vol. II dances widdershins on a dark, twisty path paved by the sexploitation genre. Where Antichrist examined medieval witchcraft and the history of gynocide and Melancholia expertly manipulated ownership of knowledge and the imagination of disaster, Nymphomaniac explores patriarchy and stigmatized female desire.
With minimal introductory pomp, a soft-focus lens captures young Joe (Stacy Martin) mourning carnal summit. Again the viewer is voyeur to asexual nerd Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) and present-day Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their sex-and-fly-fishing tête-à-tête. Joe recalls the inception of her lust—it involves levitation, spontaneous orgasm and the Whore of Babylon. Seligman's weakest digression ever, toward Jesus' transfiguration on the mount, Zeno's paradox of Achilles, and the divergence of essential doctrine of Eastern and Western Church doctrine inspires Chapter One's title.
“The Eastern Church and The Western Church (The Silent Duck)” explores the incongruity of monogamy with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf)—and attendant pregnancy, domesticity and complex maternal emotions—with Joe's longing to be overfull. Contentment is transmuted, and Jerôme's reluctant consent to an open marriage sets the stage for unfamiliar and increasingly masochistic sex. Highlights include Joe's matchless revamp of fuck-me clothes, an entirely nonverbal encounter with two African fellows, and engaging the services of professional dom K (Jamie Bell). In escalating sessions with sadistic K, Joe's submissive alter ego “Fido” prizes dogged pursuit of the little death above all else. A campy demo of “the silent duck” segues into a hurled teacup, betraying sentimental anger, and the next passage is named for spectacular reflection.
“The Mirror” observes Joe compulsively, injuriously masturbating in an office bathroom and communicating (mostly with herself) in employer-mandated sex addict meetings. She earnestly tries to gain some control over her addiction and consequent self-mutilation. Working the steps means reducing exposure and removing incentive. After witnessing Joe's version of sex-proofing an apartment, you'll never see your bathroom sink or mirrors in quite the same way again. Joe's kilometer-wide stubborn streak rears up just shy of a month of sobriety. She rebels against the twelve-steppers, proclaiming her refusal to erase her own obscenity so the bourgeoisie can feel safe. A tea stain and irreverent references to the literature of Ian Fleming provide the cut-up lead-in to resolution in “The Gun.”
The workaday world isn't for her, and she meets L (Willem Dafoe), who initiates her into the unscrupulous world of “debt collection.” Her general facility with and knowledge of men and their desires and fears proves useful in the world of heavy handed persuasion to pay. L pragmatically inspires Joe to mentor an at-risk 15-year-old P (Mia Goth). In the world of extortion, parenting happens on a whole 'nother level. A mentee acts as a right hand, and as amoral L half-sneers, some might even do time for their surrogate advocate. Joe attends P's basketball games for three years and eventually wins her loyalty at the age of maturity.
Gainsbourg illuminates the role of outsider, a wholly sexual woman whose very existence stands in opposition to the patriarchy of both the Church and secular culture. Seligman delivers a fervent feminist polemic on how Joe's behavior would be perceived entirely differently were she a man: Vol. I's train games with BFF B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and home invasion by a bitterly jealous spouse (Uma Thurman) would have fallen flat if Joe's chromosomal makeup offered so-called “reason” for aggression and infidelity.
Unabashedly demanding her sexual rights as a woman, Joe serves as a lightning rod for wounded souls in a largely puritanical world. Given his self-professed asexual nature and thus “unique” insight into Joe's story, Seligman declares his superior fitness to judge her goodness. But this is von Trier land. Yet another chance encounter with Jerome tells of the violent prelude to Seligman discovering her in the alley. The resounding, pitch-black ending renders a film marketed as a (black-and-) blue movie into a horse of a different color; and in doing so, it unmasks all its characters' true natures and the commonplace tedium of evil.