The twee tagline of the 1970s pornographic film “Deep Throat” asks, “How far does a girl have to go to untangle her tingle?” For women like Joe, the eponymous nymphomaniac of Lars von Trier’s two-part epic, the answer is an odyssey. “Nymphomaniac” is about sex in the way a war movie is about war—the buzzword tells you both everything and nothing about the film’s salient themes. “Nymphomaniac,” at its core, speaks to addiction, abuse of power, and the struggle of learning to trust after betrayal—themes far more relevant to college students exploring their identities than, ironically enough, anything found in the puerile hijinks of an Apatovian “college movie” or a CW series’ glossy froth.
The movie’s framing device is a taut two-hander of a conversation between Joe (a captivating Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the man who discovers her brutally beaten in an alley and to whom she tells her history. Joe, haunted by the betrayals that stud her past, appears as solemn and dark-eyed as the Byzantine icons that von Trier scatters amid the film’s sweat-slick rutting. Although Joe finds moments of sickly humor in her past escapades, her deadpan stems from a place of profound exhaustion. Seligman is areligious, asexual, and a committed academic, ascetically shunning both the beatific and bawdy for his books.
“The concept of religion is interesting, like the concept of sex,” he concedes in the film, “but you won’t find me on my knees with regards to either.” Seligman is also a virgin, so he can only speculate about the hunger that haunts Joe. As Joe tells her story and Seligman offers hyper-cerebral color commentary, they form a sort of bizarro Antigone and Creon insofar as the two, who sit in diametrically opposed camps, employ every flavor of rhetoric—metaphor, analogy, secondhand anecdote, and wild and varied allusions to anything from the Bible to the Bolsheviks to fishing bait—to find a way to make themselves understood.
Over the course of Joe’s story, her nymphomania (or, as it is antiseptically termed while pending inclusion into the DSM-5, “hypersexual disorder”) shapeshifts. We see nymphomania as game theory: Young Joe (Stacy Martin) applies strategy to rack up more sexual partners than her friend to win a bag of chocolate, bases her techniques on a rolled die, and wins money on a bet regarding self-insertion of a tableful of spoons. (Martin shoots a winning smile upon exiting the restaurant as utensils clatter out from under her floral skirt.) We see nymphomania as an animal: Joe’s paramour Jerôme (a game Shia LaBeouf) reasons that “when you buy a tiger ... you also have to feed it.” But her clinical experiments with scores of strangers while masquerading as a prim piano teacher trend less tiger and more sea creature of the Mariana Trench—concealed in darkness, but all-consuming. We see nymphomania as the picking of a scab, a constant itch that won’t go away even as the masochistic scratching leaves scars.
Von Trier’s film offers not only this year’s most arresting portrait of addiction but also of domination. K (Jamie Bell), a disciplinarian-for-hire, is no zeitgeisty S&M Ken doll kitted out with a Tom Ford suit and tragic backstory—he’s an unassuming kid in a gray sweater whom you might find in the back of your Core class. His brand of domination is refreshingly transactional: After money is exchanged and ground rules are established (no sexual contact, no safeword), he locks his submissives into their restraints like an amusement park worker might lock a fairgoer into a rollercoaster car. Also transfixing is the framing of Joe as a female Humbert Humbert, grooming young, pouty protégé P (Mia Goth) to join her in erotic terrorism. Von Trier’s film offers a multiple-choice moral depending on the viewers’ personal histories, moralities, and proclivities, and the film’s quietly devastating conclusion is both unexpected and exactly what you’d expect. “Nymphomaniac” is a must-see.
“Nymphomaniac” volumes I and II are available on Amazon.com for rental.