Aug 082023

Nymphomaniac Volume 2 is the second part of notorious director Lars von Trier’s 2013 film about a woman with sexual compulsion.

The framing story is that Seligman, an elderly academic, finds a beaten women in an alley near his apartment, and takes her home. She says her name is Joe, and when Seligman asks her how she ended up in his alley, she says she would have to tell him her entire life story. Over one night, Joe tells Seligman her biography in search of sexual pleasure, with frequent asides from both of them on topics ranging from techniques of fly fishing to the history of religious art. This dialog also acts as a kind of trial, with Joe prosecuting herself as a bad person who deserved her mistreatment, and Seligman defending her decisions and her worth as a person.

After many sexual experiences, Joe attempts to have something like a “normal” life by conceiving a child with Jerome and forming a nuclear family. However, Joe is troubled by her unresponsive vagina. He admits he can’t keep up with her sexual desires, and gives her free reign to explore.

Instead of the pursuit of pleasure, Joe becomes masochistic. In one sequence, Joe watches black immigrant men converse from a distance. She wants to have sex with a man who doesn’t speak English, so there is no possibility of verbal communication. She hires an interpreter to approach the men and arrange a meeting, which turns into an awkward encounter with two brothers, who argue over who has access to her body.

Somehow she finds a dominant man known only as K. She sits in K’s waiting room with other women, until he emerges and tells her this isn’t for this. His “small test” is to hit her in the face, with warning, but when she flinches before he even makes contact, he takes it as a sign she’s not up for this. Later, she takes his slap without objection.

He lays out his unilateral rules for her. First, no sex. Second, Joe doesn’t have a safeword, and nothing she can say will stop him from doing what he wants. Third, she has to acquire a used brown leather riding crop, “and not from a store selling sex toys. This isn’t a masquerade.” He adds this with a touch of contempt.

K’s “dungeon”, so to speak, is far from the usual BDSM aesthetic. It’s a disused basement with fluorescent lighting and old office furniture. The closest thing to black leather in sight is a ratty brown leather couch, over which K bends Joe for beating sessions. His implements are crude and look home-made. K doesn’t care about Joe’s name, calling her “Fido”. He does, however, care that she is aroused by these sessions, and checks her vagina for lubrication regularly. (This seems to contradict his rule prohibiting sex, unless we take it to mean no sexual contact with him.)

In trying to make sense of Joe’s story, there’s a lyric in Michael Jackson’s song “Dirty Diana” that has stuck with me:

She’s saying, “That’s okay

Hey, baby, do what you want

I’ll be your night lovin’ thing

I’ll be the freak you can taunt

I don’t care what you say

I wanna go too far….”

Joe “wants to go too far”. She doesn’t want safe-sane-consensual BDSM (or PRICK or RACK), or to know anything about K as a person. She wants the deeply masochistic experience of submitting to someone with no limits, of sticking your hand in the mouth of a lion. (Joe’s journey is like Marie’s in Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999). After exploring sex detached from love, both turn to masochistic experiences.)

She does manage to make her relationship with K somewhat reciprocal. He instructs her on tying “blood knots” to make a cat-o-nine-tails for use on her, which he marks with her “Fido” name. He even demonstrates for her the sexual technique of “the silent duck”; i.e. fisting.

Joe neglects her young son, Marcel, to have sessions with K. She leaves Marcel alone in an apartment with an open window (recalling Lars Von Trier’s earlier film Antichrist (2009)). Jerome offers her a choice and she chooses sex over family. She returns to K’s room and receives an especially brutal beating that allows her to climax again. Though K says he will not provide any sexual stimulation to her, Joe finds a way to secretly rub herself while he flogging her. This reawakens her capacity for orgasms.

Joe moves on from her masochistic phase, and throws her designated cat-o-nine-tails in the river.

After her experiences with K, Joe became pregnant accidentally. She could have had a free and safe abortion under anesthetic in a hospital, but she didn’t want to jump through the legal and psychiatric hoops to get it. In a gruesome, detailed sequence, Joe performs her own painful abortion in her home, using household items like knitting needles and a coat hanger. Exploring the meaning of this sequence, and Joe and Seligman’s argument about it, would be an essay in its own right, but it does show Joe inflicting massive pain upon herself (and specifically her vagina and womb).

After she tries and rejects therapy for sex addiction, Joe finds work as a debt collector or, more accurately, a leg-breaker for loan sharks. As she holds society and its rules in contempt, this suits her temperamentally.

I had expected her to try some kind of sex work to pay the bills, but that never comes up. It would seem logical for Joe to invert her situation with K and become a sadist, probably overwhelmed by willing men, but that might require too much of a reciprocal relationship for her. In one of the many asides, Joe tells Seligman about her conversation with an experienced sex worker who had done everything. Reportedly, the only type of client she disliked were masochists. She said they were the most demanding and the most ungrateful. Or perhaps practicing sadism on willing, masochistic men would be too easy for Joe, and she needed to experience genuine non-consent.

I hesitate to call Joe a sadist, in either the BDSM or more general senses. Her work as a debt collector involves inflicting both physical and emotional pain. She uses skills she learned from her experiences with K, such as tying blood knots to create whips to use on debtors. But she carries out her assignments with detached professionalism. She does not appear to derive pleasure from what she does, or gratification from the suffering of the debtors.

On one assignment, Joe realizes that having her minions smash the belongings of the debtor won’t work, nor will physically hurting him. She decides to get sexual dirt on him for blackmail instead. She has her thugs pull off his pants, then she runs through a catalog of sexual fantasies, on the belief that his erection will show what arouses him. When this method has him respond to her description of a young boy having sex with him, Joe realizes he is a pedophile but didn’t even know it, having suppressed this his entire life.

In the framing story, Seligman is disgusted by the man, while Joe calls him admirable for repressing his own desires for his entire life. This is a rare moment of empathy from her.

Joe’s autobiography and Seligman’s digressions continue, until she finally reveals how she ended up in the alley where he found her. In rendering final judgment of Joe, Seligman’s defense of her comes down to special pleading. He admits that if Joe had been a man, her biography would make her an asshole. As she’s a woman, she rebelling against the social constraints of her assigned gender, and therefore good.

Early in the second volume, Joe backtracks to her early adolescence, and describes experiencing a spontaneous orgasm in the wilderness, while also levitating and having a vision of two women. Seligman identifies them as the Whore of Babylon and the Roman empress Messalina, two woman made legendary for their excessive sexuality. He likens her experience to Jesus’ Transfiguration on the Mount.

In that light, Joe’s life is a holy mission, making her a kind of profane saint. She demonstrates that a woman’s desire can be as overwhelming and all-consuming as a man’s, making her an equal of Sade or Henry Miller or Walter, the author of My Secret Life. Lord Buckley once called the Marquis de Sade “a hero in evil” and that epithet would fit Joe.

This is an argument that can look acceptable in theory, but quickly becomes unacceptable in practice. Consider the life of Edith Cadivec, a rare example of a female sexual sadist, or Germaine Greer’s 2003 book The Beautiful Boy, which includes modern photos of adolescent boys in provocative situations.

Female sadism is something that neither feminism nor pop culture can really handle. The whole point of Nymphomaniac is to present Joe as an anti-heroine, as a woman almost completely lacking in conventional feminine qualities, and challenge the viewer over how they respond to her. And yet, von Trier pulled his punch by not presenting Joe as an actual sadist. She’s amoral, hedonistic, selfish, and callous, yet not actually cruel (consensually or otherwise). Would that be too far, even for a notoriously provocative director like von Trier?

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