The misanthropic director Lars Von Trier is no stranger to controversy or polarizing film work, and his ending is just that. His films also deal with the inner psychology of women, (Dogville, Melancholia, Antichrist) Von Trier’s latest work includes the two-part, four hour Nymphomaniac, where he explores his analysis of female sexuality.
The film begins when a charming old bachelor Seligman (played by Stellan Skarsgard) finds Joe, (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten up in an alley. He takes her home to care for her, and she recounts the story of her life as a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac. Seligman connects and analyzes Joe’s stories with what he’s read about. The first half of the film follows Joe as a young woman, while the second half follows her as an adult. The first half of the film is arguably more engaging than the second half, which is filled with a few unbelievable plot twists and seems to plod on.
With the division of two parts (rather than cut together to make one film) Von Trier allows the story to breathe and take its time. You find yourself intrigued with Joe’s stories and wondering where it will all lead. Joe is grappled with whether or not she is a good person, Eventually we learn that Seligman is an asexual and virgin, thus making him the perfect person to listen to her tale without judgment. Seligman assures Joe that she should not be hard on herself, that the choices she made for desire are criticized by society because she is a woman. If she were a man, she would not be having this existential crisis and no one would be questioning her appetite. This would be a worthy thesis (and defense…for many criticize Von Trier of misogyny despite his efforts to tell stories of women) but he can’t leave it at that, and the ending completely upheaves everything.
Joe has finished telling her story, and decides to go to bed. Seligman creeps back into the room with his pants off, attempting rape her. The film cuts to black as we hear Joe awaken and reach for a gun. Seligman protests and we then hear a gunshot and the sounds of Joe grabbing her things and leaving the apartment.
This ending quite obviously comes as a shock. We’ve spent the last four hours of psychological analysis and hints of a brighter ending filled with gentleness, empathy and possible redemption for Joe. But Von Trier instead chooses to pull a sneering trick on the audience. He has the ending betray nearly everything the film set up.
While it can certainly be seen as a big “F You” to the entire film and audience, it does leave you to wonder what statement is Von Trier, the eternal cynic, trying to make? Was it the punchline to a very bleak joke? The ending seems to be Von Trier obnoxiously hammering the thesis that ‘All men are the same and will always want to take advantage of women’. Seligman is supposed to represent society, who assume that if a woman is sexually promiscuous she is just a font of sex. If she’s a nymphomaniac, if she always wants sex, why would she deny him? Why shouldn’t he take advantage of this, it’s not like she’ll protest. This is Von Trier saying that when life is beautiful, something’s bound to ruin it. Humanity is driven to fuck things up and that is the honest viewpoint of life.
Von Trier’s cynical statement and sledgehammer of an ending could have worked it was executed in a better way. Also, the ending would not have been nearly as frustrating (and might have been able to really work) if Seligman wasn’t such an interesting and engaging character. Seligman was very well written and performed. He was established as an asexual that seems very content with that life. He made our female lead feel safe, and together they formed a caring relationship that we cared about, too. It’s angering to know that in the end that was worth nothing. Von Trier tries to play a bleak joke on the audience and make a grand statement about humanity, but instead of laughing and being enlightened we are enraged.