“Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I've always demanded more from the sunset.” So says Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the heroine of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, the first of two volumes of which has recently been released theatrically here in the U.S. She’s speaking to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a quiet, middle-aged stranger who has brought her back to his home after discovering her lying battered and bruised in a nearby alley. Like a foundling in an eighteenth-century novel, she proceeds to recount her life story to Seligman, whose bed doubles as a therapist’s couch. Joe’s narrative is a sexual picaresque, the first half of which spans her earliest sexual memories to a chance reunion with her first lover, Jerome (Shia LeBoeuf). Joe self-identifies as a nymphomaniac; the operative word in her statement about the sunset is “more.” But she’s less certain about whether her insatiable sexual appetite has brought her more pleasure than pain.
It’s a question that Seligman, who gently punctuates Joe’s narrative with interjections, questions, analogies, and interpretive hypotheses, tries to help her to answer. The intellectual, sexually non-threatening Seligman functions as an interlocutor, a psychoanalyst, a father figure, and a foil for the more libidinal, intuitive Joe, for whom the pursuit of sexual knowledge provides a primary means of understanding the world. (She translates his mini-lectures on such topics as fly-fishing and music theory into sexual terms.) It soon becomes clear that Nymphomaniac owes as much, if not more, to continental philosophy (Sade, Freud, Foucault) and the canon of highbrow erotic fiction (Bataille, Genet, Nin) as it does to Debbie Does Dallas and Xtube. It’s firmly embedded in a long tradition of works in which representations of sex lend themselves to the theorization of more abstract concepts of power and pleasure, mind and body, the self and others.