Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is discussing her life with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the man who rescued her from the streets after being beaten up, and she has reached the halfway point in her story, though at this stage goes back to when she was twelve years old and lying in a field in summer, her friends nearby. She was lost in a reverie when suddenly she felt as if she were lifted up off the grass and had a vision of two women in the sky who Seligman identifies as two figures from history or legend, the nymphomaniac Valeria Messalina and the Whore of Babylon: could this early sexual sensation have set her on the path to having intercourse with as many men as she could find?
Or was it only Lars von Trier tying himself in knots to try and justify his latest woman-hating put on, in the second part of a plot which even more than in the first failed to convince you that these were real people behaving as authentic personalities would? That was a problem when some would have it von Trier was making a grand statement about the human condition as the results said more about his twisted sensibility all geared to getting a reaction from the audience, and if it were good or bad then that was equally satisfying to him. Indeed, the impression was the more people he pissed off the better he liked it, after all if he was anything like Joe simply being appreciated was no fun at all.
What you really needed were antagonists who would point out where they thought you were going wrong, because then the fans would defend you even more fervently, and all you needed to do was sit back and watch the fur fly. Except it didn't really work out that way for both Nymphomaniac volumes as most took one look at that title and decided if this was a film for them or not, and being well aware this was an art movie could have told them they were wasting their time if they wanted to be titillated. In some places it was more like Lars was daring the viewer to get off on the increasingly depraved yarns he was spinning, so that if someone genuinely did feel this was erotic the joke was well and truly on them. Trickster, always the trickster.
Anyway, for a change in this trilogy of depression (along with Antichrist and Melancholia) maybe we were not being goaded into despising the female lead as much this time, but then the excuse for that is the ancient cliché about the hypocrisy judged between male sexual conquests and female ones: if the man sleeps around he's a stud to be admired, if the woman does it she's a slut and should be ashamed. Von Trier was assuming an essentially conservative audience would be watching his opus and would be taken aback by such exposure of this logic as a fallacy, but the fact remained he went so far over the top with the theory, to the extent that Joe behaves as no other person has before or since but merely as a construct of the director's provocation, it was difficult to take any of it seriously even as the tone grew sombre.
So our heroine (antiheroine?) gets bogged down by her own desires and ends up neglecting the child she has with her first love (Shia LaBeouf) and instead visiting Jamie Bell who runs a service for women where he spanks them raw and gets paid for the privilege, if you can call it that. Again, the whole notion of Joe acting like a man as a slave to her desires created some very odd scenes, not least because she turns into a heavy in the pay of gangster Willem Dafoe, using strongarm tactics and her - you guessed it - sexuality to get what is due to him. Along the way she expressed her racism and sympathy for paedophiles in more would-be offensiveness, but if you'd gotten this far into the plot there would be very little to surprise you. Which was likely why the ending, after Seligman has represented all men and forgiven Joe (that was big of him), was even by von Trier's standards a silly one as he overreached for the confrontational and fell flat on his face. Well, he had done so a long time before. The biggest shock was the huge teacup - who drinks that much tea in one sitting?
[Artificial Eye's Region 2 DVD has an interview with a couple of the less famous stars as an extra.]
Notoriously eccentric Danish writer, director and producer, a graduate of the Danish Film School, who has capitalised on international acclaim and disdain in equal measure. Thrillers Forbrydelsens Element and Epidemic started the ball rolling, with distinctive war drama Europa really setting von Trier up as a talent to watch.
Breaking the Waves, the first in a series of victim stories, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and his fame spread, especially as he had teamed up with three other directors to create the Dogme '95 rules of filmmaking - controversial The Idiots was von Trier's result. Then Dancer in the Dark, a musical starring Bjork, proving he was anything but predictable, and Dogville, a scabrous attack on American small town life.
He was next involved in The Five Obstructions, a documentary which revealed much about his methods. Then, a thematic follow-up to Dogville, slavery drama Manderlay, which was followed by little seen comedy The Boss of It All and most controversially, his relationship goes to hell horror Antichrist.