Things get painful for our heroine in Volume II of Lars von Trier’s Nyphomaniac, which finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) confronting the darkest recesses of sexual experience: masochism, torture, and, perhaps most frightening of all, the loss of sexual pleasure altogether. Joe herself describes this period in her sexual history as a symbolic movement from the orthodox Christian tradition of the East, associated here with spiritual ecstasy, to the Catholic tradition of the West, with its emphasis on suffering.
Even as Joe’s quest for sexual satisfaction proceeds to take a considerable toll on her physical and emotional well-being, it’s also constitutive of her subjectivity, something she can’t shake. Underneath Nymphomaniac’s generous heapings of sex and violence lies a relatively basic philosophical question: would we be better rid of our sexuality, given all of the trouble it causes us? Are its momentary pleasures worth the pain, frustration, and risk that attend them? Joe spends Volume II continuing to work through this with the help of the benevolent Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who confesses early on in Volume II that he is asexual and a virgin who has devoted himself to a life of the mind. Might this “happy man” (as his name suggests) have the right idea? Or, if happiness means celibacy, is it preferable to be miserable?
Joe doesn’t arrive at an answer until the final moments of the film, in which von Trier delivers an outrageous Sadeian punch-line of which the Marquis himself would no doubt have been proud. Even before we get there, however, von Trier tips his hand by dramatizing the impossibility of escaping the sexual. Joe’s attempts to renounce her sexual desire prove futile, dehumanizing, and absurd: when, in an effort to practice celibacy, she purges her home of anything and everything that she might associate with sexual pleasure, she’s left lying motionless in an empty cell of a room—and, even then, she still can’t get away from her own body and her mind, in which the roots of sexual desire could be said to be located. To purge oneself of sexuality would mean erasing the self altogether. In a later scene, Joe finds a figure for her soul in the form of a tree standing alone at the top of a cliff—twisted, battered, solitary, but strangely noble.
This scene (along with an impassioned rant directed at the members of a self-help group for sex addicts) is as close as the film comes to being what we might call “sex-positive.” But if von Trier refuses to invest in a fantasy of sex as an expression of love or connection, he’s in good company. Nymphomaniac follows Sade, Freud, Bataille, and Bersani in insisting on sexuality’s violence, its primacy, and its inescapability. von Trier affirms sex by embracing its savagery and its meanness instead of sanctioning or domesticating it. His examples may be repellant, clunky, juvenile, and even risible at times, but the argument is one that remains compelling even two hundred years after Justine. There’s enough here to think about that I, for one, am willing to excuse Nymphomaniac its occasional crudities.