In certain respects, Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 bears a strong similarity to Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2--except instead of a rampage of violence, Nymphomaniac contains a rampage of sex. Von Trier opens with the quiet hero of the story, aging bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), as he collects his things to get ready to leave his home. Rammstein's "Führe mich" plays with contrasting violence against the peaceful backdrop of snow lightly falling onto Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, our nympho) while she lies prostrate in the street. It's a highly dramatic place to start, merely leaving us hungry for more (much in the way nymphomaniacs are hungry for their next...dalliance).
Intrigued by Joe's aura of self-loathing, as well as how she came to be beaten and left for dead, Seligman listens to her recount the instances that prove she's a "bad human being." The first example being that she discovered her cunt at the age of two and was soon after playing salacious games with her best friend, "B" (Sophie Kennedy Clark), that included filling up the bathroom floor with water and wading around in it like frogs for their own sexual gratification. Like all nymphomaniacs, Joe prefers her father, to her "cold bitch" of a mother, Katherine (Connie Nielsen).
Of course, Joe eventually gives into the naive concept of love after re-encountering the boy she lost her virginity to, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who happens to be in temporary control at the office she's applied to a job for. At first hesitant to admit to herself or Jerôme that she has "emotions" for him, she bottles it all up inside until finally developing the courage to tell him in a letter. But by then, he's already gone--up and left with the other secretary. Naturally, this only confirms Joe's belief that rebelling against love through copious amounts of sex is absolutely essential.
In the midst of her next fuck-filled binge, Joe causes harm to Mrs. P (played with neurotic grace by Uma Thurman--another Kill Bill connection), who storms Joe's apartment after her husband abandons her and his three children to be with Joe. Living up to her masculine name, Joe is largely unmoved by Mrs. P's plight, and soon moves on to the next man. Still feeling largely empty and lonely, Joe notes, "Basically, we're all just waiting for permission to die." This statement comes after witnessing the protracted death of her father as a result of delirium tremens. She confesses to Steligman that she "lubricated" upon seeing his dead body.
The road to sexual sobriety is briefly paved after, once again, Joe comes across Jerôme on one of her daily walks in the woods. After they finally have sex for the first time since she lost her virginity to him, Vol. 1 concludes with Joe exclaiming, "I can't feel anything!" (it's all very Samantha Jones). For a nymphomaniac to lose clitoral feeling is, obviously, the worst possible experience, and Joe is eager to restore her original state by any means necessary. Having a baby temporarily gets in the way, at which point Vol. 2 shows us how devoted Joe is to the cause of her pleasure and her pussy. At one point, she asserts, "Above all, I love my cunt, and my filthy, dirty lust."
Joe's increasingly tragic, yet somehow life-affirming existence takes her on a path toward "debt collecting," at which time it is only natural that Willem Dafoe as "L" makes an appearance. After her workplace forces her to try her hand at sex rehab, Joe recounts to L, "I've been working in an office, and I've never been really good at it." L nods and responds, "I can understand that. I mean, what's the point?" And so, for awhile, Joe's innate sense of sexual psychosis proves useful in getting people to pay back their debts, that is, until L insists that she take on a successor to her business. The girl L has in mind is "P" (Mia Goth), an impressionable and institutionalized 15-year-old. Initially resistant to the plan, Joe somehow finds herself becoming romantically involved with P, a relationship that becomes more complicated when Joe discovers that P has been having sex with Jerôme, one of the clients Joe has been called upon to collect from.
Seligman, who has, by now, admitted to being an asexual virgin, remains non-judgmental of Joe's actions. Even after she tells him of some highly incomprehensible moments in her life, including having a vision of the Whore of Babylon and Messalina (a notorious nymphomaniac and the wife of Roman Emperor Claudius), Seligman is largely willing to believe her story and remain on her side--no matter how scandalous things become. The rapport they share is unlikely, yet genuine, often teetering by a perilous thread that could be destroyed at any moment. In comparison to Von Trier's second installment in the "Depression Trilogy," Melancholia, Nymphomaniac is far superior, if for nothing more than the symbolism of Joe and her "soul tree."
Then, suddenly, although Nymphomaniac has encapsulated feminism, hypocrisy and vindication all throughout the narrative, it manages to combine all three of these themes into the final minutes of the film. Paralleling the notion that sex and death are interchangeable, the ending, though unexpected, is all too appropriate.