Bent over on an office couch with her hands and legs tied up, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) evolves from the monotony of repeated intercourse with various partners into an adept sadomasochism enthusiast. For the second half of his intense exploration on pathological sexuality, Lars von Trier ventures into these violent practices. His familiar tendency for incorporating blasphemous content is also more pronounced in this latter installment. Nevertheless, it all still points towards his goal of denouncing hypocrisy and presenting women as sexual beings and not only as vehicles for male satisfaction.
In her quest to quench her voracious appetite for physical pleasure, the uninhibited heroine becomes aware of the infinite void her lifestyle has created within. What she once found arousing or exciting in bed no longer brings her relief. She believed having a family with her beloved Jerome ( Shia LaBeouf) would provide comfort and perhaps put an end to her insatiable promiscuity. However, it appears that the very concept of polygamy is what is hurting her subconsciously. The level of intimacy and loyalty required to make a marriage work is a cross too heavy for her to bear. Von Trier also makes it clear he sees a mystical component to her behavior. He once again touches on the religious institution’s negative views on female liberation by throwing into the mix several references to demonized biblical women. These short magical-realist passages are enlightened by the sexually inexperienced Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), Joe’s bookworm confidant, and enhance the piece with sophisticated ideas that compliment the often-grotesque imagery.
As a mother Joe finds no gratification in caring for another human being. Her infant son is a burden to her even when Jerome suggests she seeks outside “help” to satisfy her needs. Soon she is back to her habits and roams around the city finding more than willing men to use her. Eventually she comes across a secret meeting place that women visit in the middle of the night to have a chance at being punished by a mysterious young man known as “K” (Jamie Bell). He rechristens her as "Fido" in order to minimize any emotional attachment. They are strangers playing a role in their power-driven enocunters. Joe discovers that pain is now her preferred avenue towards orgasm, and in order to get her fix she neglects her son. This scenario gives Von Trier the opportunity to pay homage to himself by leading the audience into an Antichrist-inspired sequence – music included.
Boldly as only the Danish ex-Dogme95 preacher could, he deals with Joe’s conduct as an all-consuming addiction in the latter part of the film. But as it is expected from him, his character is never apologetic or remorseful about her decisions. Even when she has lost it all and she has been exposed as a self-harming individual, she refuses to justify her ways. Given the path she chose, Joe goes off the grid and gets involved in illicit activities by the hand of “L”, played by Von Trier favorite Willem Dafoe. She becomes an expert in despicable psychological torture for extortion, a job for which her “credentials” are ideal. Afraid of her longevity, “L” suggests finding an heir to Joe’s abilities, which brings “P” (Mia Goth) into the picture. A self-conscious orphan teen, “P” becomes both Joe’s lover and assistant. Taking her in will definitely backfire in an unpredictable manner, one that will hit the protagonist where it hurts the most.
Intended as a singular work, Nymphomaniac is a fantastic exercise in style and a master class in fearless acting. The second volume doesn’t quiet function as a cohesive film on its own because of the context it requires to be fully understood, which can only be obtained by watching the first part. On the other hand, the initial volume by itself feels incomplete since it introduces an unraveling character, but doesn’t delve into the consequences of her debauchery. While hasty and shocking, the conclusion of this Magnus opus speaks of a woman’s choice. The choice to determine her limits, her desires, and her partners, rather than being a docile instrument for others to materialize their depraved fantasies. Even when Joe decides to surrender and give in to systematic suffering, she is control. This is a lesson in female empowerment packaged in an extraordinary artistic vision, needless to say, Von Trier is one spectacular professor.