Our story resumes: Having found a love-like feeling for Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), "restful domestic comfort" has, at the outset of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Volume II, robbed the young Joe (Stacy Martin) of her orgasm. Naomi Wolf documented a similar problem in her 2012 book Vagina; the similarities between Joe and Naomi Wolf end there. For Joe, the loss appears less tied to pleasure than to identity, and so rather than seeing a pelvic nerve man and scheduling back surgery, Joe eventually resorts to K (Jamie Bell), an elfin bloke peddling his masochistic services out of a clinically furnished office. "What do you get out of it?" the adult Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) asks before her first walloping. "That's my business," K replies darkly. "Don't ask again."
But asking again is a task central to von Trier, one he appears to acknowledge with this and other of the film's self-reflections. Gainsbourg has referred to her scenes with Bell as the most humiliating to perform, which makes sense: They are the most painfully real moments in a film layered with detachment and pretense, most obviously in its depictions of sex, which, in a Dogme-bound perversion, are neither real nor realistic. Instead, a resolve to be plain led to sex that is faked in the most elaborate way, with porn doubles, digital grafting, and prosthetics. What von Trier has repeatedly referred to as "a porn film" is powered by common (if graphic) simulation, wherein each character expresses some part of the director's fractious psyche.
The conversation at the center of Nymphomaniac occurs between the adult Joe and the passerby (Stellan Skarsgard) who finds her prone and beaten at the beginning of Volume I. His name, Seligman, means "blessed man" in German; it sounds more like "silly man" in Gainsbourg's airy, deceptively girlish voice. They cradle mugs of tea in Seligman's decaying guest room, surrounded by peeling, stained wallpaper, and objects — like the fishing lure in Volume I and a Christian icon here — that provide a haphazard structure for Joe's picaresque, shown in flashback, of sexual annihilation.
At issue is the quality, even the basic quantity of Joe's soul after years of enslavement to her impulses. Joe describes an unresolvable divide between society and sexuality, and finds little dear in the human race, especially herself. Seligman claims his virginity makes him a better judge of her character; it certainly lends itself to his relentless countering of experience with knowledge. He compares teenage sex trolling to fly fishing and S&M to crucifixion; an especially esoteric bit tries Joe's patience. "I think this was one of your weakest digressions," she says coldly.
But the story is not really the story here. With its dreary pan-continental setting, random chapter headings, wry self-references (notably to Breaking the Waves, Manderlay, and Antichrist), and indifferent handling of continuity (Joe and Jerôme are parents to a perennial infant), Nymphomaniac is a jigsaw opus, an extended and generally exquisitely crafted riff. Story, theme, and character (despite Gainsbourg's captivations) bow to Von Trier's gamesmanship, which makes his own promiscuities the film's true subject.
The images of sexuality are powerfully sterile, often mordantly hilarious. A restaurant scene involving Joe and a vast number of sundae spoons serves no purpose but to set up a visual gag involving a nonplussed Udo Kier. At one point, the screen is held by a merkin so droll that with a mic and a cigarette, I thought, it might crack a few jokes. At another, two African men argue an orgiastic point of order while a naked Gainsbourg sits ignored between them, framed by the impressive drawbridge of their erections. (Joe is rarely the focus of her interludes, nor is her pleasure.) By some mitigating, von Trier-ian necessity, Joe's suffering — and she is never more wretched than when she finally claws back that orgasm — feels most intimate when Nymphomaniac descends to the gallows.
Of this compulsive tale of compulsion, virgins may not make the best judges. Which makes its value both harder and more necessary to explain. Rather than answers, I have more questions: about a self-identified nymphomaniac (not sex addict; too bourgeois) who finds ultimate relief not in sexual agency but story. About a director who engineers female avatars which both protect and indict him. Who also seeks in narrative the possibility of meaning, or at least respite from some more brutal, less cooperative truth.
If Joe had been a man there would be no story, we are told. What about a hoarder, a cutter, a binge eater? Such details are not interchangeable, of course, and bear a certain dramatic recourse, one von Trier appears to at once relish and discount. What does it mean? Why make these choices, which are not random, and then insist on a world in which chaos reigns? I ask again, with pleasure.