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Film / Nymphomaniac

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Being the third and final installment of Lars von Trier's "Depression Trilogy" (after Antichrist and Melancholia), the 2014 film Nymphomaniac is a bleak story of utter emotional misery. So what else is new, right?

The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård, with the supporting cast including Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, and Mia Goth in her film debut.

The story has two starting points, both functioning as a Downer Beginning with life going downhill from there. At the narrative starting point, we open with middle-aged bachelor Seligman (Skarsgård) finding a woman named Joe (Gainsbourg) beaten and bleeding in an alley one evening, after which he takes her into his home and she tells him the story of her life, one as a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac. At the chronological starting point, the story starts with Joe levitating 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.

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.

Nymphomaniac came out of the editing room at five-and-a-half hours in running length. Von Trier made the decision to split it into two films, and the studio worked with the film's editors to cut it down to four hours, from which two two-hour "volumes" were released two weeks apart. The complete Director's Cut had its general release world premiere in Copenhagen in September 2014, adding roughly 90 minutes of footage, expanding some of the subplots.

This film provides examples of:

  • Arc Number: 3 and 5 show up several times throughout the film.
  • Aspect Ratio Switch: The base aspect ratio of the film is 2.35:1, but the ratio changes to 1.85:1 in Chapter 3.
  • Black Is Bigger in Bed: Zigzagged. Joe goes so far as finding an interpreter so she can 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 alleged penis size but because she finds the thought of not being able to communicate with her sex partner enticing. However, both he and his brother are well-hung, which we see in detail since Joe has a threeway with them.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The two immigrant brothers arguing over who's gonna fuck which hole of Joe's.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Willem Dafoe's character doesn't like the term "extortion" when referring to his business: "I always prefer the term debt collection."
  • Bookends: 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.
  • Catch the Conscience: It's not entirely clear what Uma Thurman's character is trying to achieve when following her husband to Joe's flat. Once in the room, she shows her kids around, then presenting the pillow that her son has embroidered himself "for Daddy", possibly in an attempt to appeal to his conscience.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Lampshaded. 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.
  • Conversation Cut: In the beginning, when Seligman picks Joe up and takes her home. We cut from the street right to after he gave her tea. He then asks what happened, suggesting that they did not continue talking about the incident while walking to his place.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Joe uses the rope techniques K taught her to torture people for the mob.
  • Death by Woman Scorned: Subverted. Joe plots to kill Jerôme for having a relationship with P. Her plan goes awry and she gets severely busted and humiliated by the two.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Chapter 4 comes entirely in black and white.
  • Depraved Homosexual: The only gay man in the movie is also a pedophile.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Joe has a tendency for this. First she attempts to kill Jerôme for having an affair with P, then she actually does kill Seligman for forcing himself onto her. We can safely assume that pointing the gun at him would have sufficed.
  • 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.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: When Seligman tries to force himself onto Joe, she rightfully defends herself. However, Joe herself twice rapes a man throughout both volumes. In the first, it’s the man on the train on whom she forces herself despite repeated protests and refusals from him — an act which neither Joe nor Seligman calls rape (Joe says it was wrong, while Seligman defends it). In the second, it’s the pedophile, whom she gives a blowjob while he is tied to a chair.
  • 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.
  • Extreme Libido: Joe, that's what the film is all about.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The entirety of Joe and Seligman's conversation takes place over the course of one night.
  • Fake Shemp: According to promotional material, any scenes showing actual sexual penetration do not actually involve the name actors, but are rather body/sex doubles, with digital compositing used to merge with images of the actors face or upper body if both need to be in the same shot.
  • 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.
  • Le Film Artistique: Let's see: Absurd length (✓). Viewers Are Geniuses (✓). Deliberately Monochrome (✓). Depressing as hell (✓). Extremely graphic sex scenes (✓).
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Neither Joe nor Seligman believe in higher powers or any other supernatural forces. This may be reasonable or not, depending on how certain key scenes are interpreted.
  • Framing Device: Joe's backstory is told in flashbacks during her stay at Seligman's.
  • 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.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: Marcel, the 3-year-old son 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 sexism 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.
    • Jerôme's 3+5 treatment on P which Joe is Forced to Watch.
  • 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 realizes that sex doesn't give her any 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 averted in two others.
  • Match Cut: Von Trier gives us a dissolve from a rotating close-up on a vagina to a closed eye.
  • 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).
  • Narrative Filigree: The film is really all about this, according to the director.
  • Nepotism: Jerôme rose to be the boss of his uncle's printing firm only because the latter got ill. When the uncle returned, he didn't talk very highly of Jerôme as his replacement.
  • 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 with Marcel dying in a similar fashion to Nick in Antichrist, by falling off the balcony.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Seligman admonishes Joe for using the word “negro”, saying that it’s not politically correct. Joe disagrees, answering that in her opinion society tries to hide certain words as politically incorrect when it’s afraid to face the real issues behind them.
  • Porn with Plot: Though not labeled as pornography, the series features some explicit, hardcore sex scenes.
  • Psycho Lesbian: The film's only same-sex relationship is female and quickly turns into a potentially homicidal flavor of this trope when Joe sets Jerôme's car on fire, subsequently attempting to murder him.
  • Rage Against the Reflection: Jerôme breaks the bathroom mirror in frustration over his failing marriage/sex life with Joe.
  • 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.
  • Relationship Sabotage: Joe is a psychopath home wrecker, showing no remorse after accidentally breaking up the marriage of an older man and Uma Thurman's character.
  • Sex–Face Turn: Joe's old friend finds love and thus defects from their satanic cult.
  • 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 hallucination/vision 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 doesn't care at all about the lives she wrecks.
  • Soap Opera Disease: Joe's father suffers and eventually dies from an unknown disease.
  • 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.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: All the damage Joe has done to her vagina through years of continuous sexual intercourse starts to haunt her by the film's end.
  • 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 legally act upon his fetishes — which she defends as being saintly, compared to the pedophiles who do act upon their urges. She ends up giving the guy a blow job.
    Joe: Listen to me. This is a man who had succeeded in repressing his own desire, who had never before given into it right up until I forced it out. He had lived a life full of denial and had never hurt a soul. I think that's laudable.
    Seligman: No matter how much I try, I can't find anything laudable in pedophilia.
    Joe: That's because you think about the perhaps 5% who actually hurt children. The remaining 95% never live out their fantasies. Think about their suffering. Sexuality is the strongest force in human beings. To be born with forbidden sexuality must be agonizing. The pedophile who manages to get through life with the shame of his desire, while never acting on it, deserves a bloody medal.
  • Thematic Series: Part of the "Depression" Trilogy (after Antichrist and Melancholia), which focuses on sexuality and depression.
  • Two Scenes, One Dialogue: 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.
  • Threeway Sex: Joe has sex with two men, but one isn't happy with his position and breaks it off in the middle.
  • Unreliable Narrator: All of Joe's stories beg the question of how much of it was real, how many were embellished and how many were to get a rise out of Seligman. 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.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Seligman alludes to concepts of religion, philosophy and classical music history which might not be easy to grasp for viewers without a proper background.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Seligman has this reaction when Joe tells him she sucked off a pedophile directly after blackmailing him for it.
  • Where da White Women At?: Inverted with Joe, lusting for sex with the black immigrant.
  • Would Hit a Girl: K, so very much. Women are actually queuing up to be physically abused by him.
  • 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.