Being the third movie in Lars Von Trier's
"Depression" Trilogy (after Antichrist
, the 2014 film Nymphomaniac
is a bleak story of utter emotional misery. So what else is new, right?
As a woman named "Joe" tells the story of her life, the film can be said to have three main characters: Joe-the-protagonist, Joe-the-narrator, and Seligman-the-audience. While Joe and Joe are the same person, Joe-the-narrator hates Joe-the-protagonist with a passion. There are also several side characters, but most of them don't even have names.
The film has two starting points. Both starting as a Downer Beginning
and life going downhill from there. In the narrative starting point, the story starts with Seligman finds Joe beaten and bleeding in an alley. In the chronological starting point, the story starts with Joe levitating up in the air as she receives a vision from the Whore of Babylon herself. This demonic possession turns Joe's sexuality self-destructive as well as harmful to others. However, it is up to the audience to decide whether the demonic possession is literal (supernatural), delusional (mental illness) or metaphorical
... Or simply Joe trying to mess with Seligman's head
came out of the editing room at five-and-a-half hours in running length. The studio worked with the film editors
to cut the film down to four hours, and released it as two two-hour movies, two weeks apart. One of the producers said that the 90 minutes of additional footage will eventually be released by von Trier. While no plans for that release have been detailed, an unedited Volume I was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February of 2014.
- All Gays Are Pedophiles: The only male homosexual in the movie is also a pedophile.
- Arc Number: 3 and 5 show up several times throughout the film.
- Asexuality: Seligman claims this, and he and Joe have a refreshingly open and respectful conversation about it. Unfortunately, it is somewhat undermined by the ending, in which he attempts to rape her.
- Black Is Bigger in Bed: Averted. Joe goes as far as finding an interpreter so she could have sex with an African immigrant who doesn't speak a word of English. However, she doesn't do this because of the man's supposed penis size but because she finds the thought of not being able to communicate with her sex partner enticing.
- Bondage Is Bad: BDSM will make a woman find her lost sexuality, but also obsess over her master so that she neglects her child and leaves her husband.
- Book Ends: The film opens and closes with over a full minute of black screen, with only sound effects.
- Call Back: Jerôme penetrates P in the exact manner that he penetrated Joe at the start of the film: 3 vaginal thrusts, 5 anal thrusts.
- Contrived Coincidence: Joe's third meeting with Jerôme — finding torn photographs from his ex-lover whilst on a walk, stumbling upon him and being lifted up onto a bridge by him — sounds way too contrived for Seligman's ears. Joe claims the story is authentic.
- Chekhov's Skill: Joe uses the rope techniques K taught her to torture people for the mob.
- Depraved Homosexual: The only male homosexual in the movie is also a pedophile, while the film's only same-sex relationship is female and quickly turns into a potentially homicidal flavor of Psycho Lesbian.
- Dominatrix: A male example, with lots and lots of female clients.
- Double Standard: Seligman tells Joe that if she were male, it would have been considered normal; but as a woman, she took on self-inflicted shame and guilt.
- Downer Beginning: The film starts with Seligman finding Joe beaten and bleeding in an alley.
- Downer Ending: After a long life of cold and shallow sex, Joe finally finds a true friend in the asexual virgin Seligman. Then he tries to rape her, and she kills him.
- Extremely Short Timespan: The entirety of Joe and Seligman's conversation takes place over the course of one night.
- Fan Disservice: Halfway through the film, the sex will look like it's straight out of a textbook. Come Volume II, it grows more and more disturbing. When it finally comes to the lesbian sex scene, Joe starts crying.
- Flat Earth Atheist OR Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Neither Joe nor Seligman believes in higher powers or any other supernatural forces. This may be reasonable or not, depending on how certain key scenes are interpreted.
- Good People Have Good Sex: Invoked, as Joe's old friend finds Love and thus defects from their satanic cult.
- Gory Discretion Shot: The screen turns black as Joe shoots Seligman.
- How We Got Here: The story Joe tells Seligman ends with how she wound up beaten in an alley.
- Infant Immortality: Marcel, the 3-year-old boy of Joe and Jerôme, wakes up alone and climbs on the balcony in a similar fashion as Nick in Antichrist. This time, however, someone gets there in time to prevent the kid from falling to his death.
- Internalized Categorism: Seligman suggests this as an explanation for why Joe's life has been so shitty - that she has internalized our culture's misogyny and hatred of sexuality.
- Ironic Echo: Joe nearly repeats K's line about screaming after being hit word for word while preparing to beat someone maliciously.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: "Are you ready for the next chapter?" [chapter screen appears]
- Left the Background Music On: The organ music expertly used by Joe to describe the harmony of three lovers she once had, which plays in her flashback on a tape machine, abruptly stops playing when the cassette it's coming from runs out of tape –– at the same time that she releases that sex doesn't give her any kind of pleasure anymore.
- Love Redeems: Several female characters seem to get redeemed by finding love with a man. However, the redemption remains unconfirmed in two cases, and eventually brutally averted in two others.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Joe is possessed by The Whore Of Babylon (but maybe it was only an epileptic seizure after all). She later grows to lead a gang to fight against Love, because love only leads to jealousy... (or maybe this gang was an actual Satanic Cult after all).
- One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Joe has sex with four men, and tells each one that "something that means a lot to [her]" has happened: that they have provided her her first orgasm. Each guy's reply is shown in a montage.
- One Steve Limit: Averted. In Volume I, Joe's mother is Katherine, whom her father shortens to K, and who is referred to as such for the remainder of her screen time. In Volume II, a male sadomasochist whom Joe sees, much to the alienation of her family, is also named K.
- Parental Neglect: Joe's quest for the lost orgasm leads her to leave her 3-year-old boy, Marcel, alone at home. This almost ends up Marcel dying in a similar fashion as Nick in Antichrist by falling off the balcony.
- Psycho Lesbian: The film's only same-sex relationship is female and quickly turns into a potentially homicidal flavor of this trope.
- Reality Ensues: All the damage Joe has done to her vagina through years of continuous sexual intercourse starts to haunt her by the film's end.
- Really Gets Around: Being a movie about someone who's addicted to sex this is pretty much a given. In the end this trope is played in a rather dark way though, when Seligman tries to rape Joe using her nymphomania as an excuse.
- Sex Is Evil: While the film portrays sex that isn't based on love as being self-destructive, Joe claims that love is even worse.
- Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: Joe and the others base their sexuality on disregard for themselves and others, not really caring who gets hurt. This even includes the supposedly asexual Seligman, who verbally gives justification to some of her more inconsiderate actions... And eventually tries to rape her.
- Shout-Out: The beginning of Joe's hallunication of the Whore of Babylon echoes part of She's meditation in von Trier's earlier film Antichrist.
- The scene with Joe's child Marcel mirrors the opening of Antichrist as well.
- The Sociopath: Joe-the-protagonist is portrayed this way by her narrator self, with quite a bit of focus on how she don't care at all about the lives she wrecks.
- Split Screen: Cleverly used when Joe compares three lovers to the three-voice harmony of a church organ. Each third of a screen is used for a different partner, and as she introduces each person, the film fills another third of the screen with sex.
- Sympathy for the Devil: Joe sympathizes with a pedophile, because she sees him as a sexual deviant like herself, only she pities him because he can't act upon his fetishes — which she defends as being saintly, compared to the pedophiles who act upon their urges. She ends up giving the guy a blow job.
- Thematic Series: Part of the "Depression" Trilogy (after Antichrist and Melancholia), which focuses on sexuality and depression.
- Unreliable Narrator: Seligman sometimes calls out Joe on her bullshit, but perhaps not often enough. Her story gives an accurate portrayal of her state of mind, but perhaps less so of her life.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Seligman has this reaction when Joe tells him he sucked off a pedophile directly aftering blackmailing him for it.
- You Remind Me of X: Seligman finds parallels with Joe's story in nature and the arts; these parallels remind Joe of other parts of her story.