What’s Up With That Ending?: Nymphomaniac

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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30 thoughts on “What’s Up With That Ending?: Nymphomaniac

  1. The ending wasn’t expected but simple… as the polar opposite of her, He helped her understand life from a different perspective which balanced itself out in the end. They both understand each other to a degree and she trusted him. but Seligman fucked up the trust by confirming to her how animalistic men can be. Apparently he didn’t her her not 15 minutes ago when she said that (for lack of better words) that she was cool with killing a man, especially while in an emotionally, mentally, and physically compromised state. So Of course the ending wasn’t expected, But in life, you also can’t expect the exception to stick over the rule: Not every fuck is an opportunity; sex at times will detrimental.

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  2. I loved and hated the ending. Loved it because of how real it was. We live in a society where if you have been victimized/abused/raped your chances are extremely high of these things happening again.
    I may not be nearly as promiscuous as joe was but I deifnitly identify with her in many ways. The ending did also make me very angry of course but not so much at the man but at the reality of what it was. I applaud her for having the courage to kill him. It can be very difficult for a victim to “get out”, but yes she also has experience with killing and she has gone through so much that she has developed a strong instinct.
    I think it was a great movie and i really wish there were more like it. They dont necesarily need al the sex but showing female sexuality in the rawest form seems so rare. Its nice to see women with really high libidos represented in the media. Especially as someone who grew up believing that it was always men who had high libidos. Only to frow up and always have a much higher libido than all of my partners. Perhaps men are just less in tune with their libidos, or women have to deny themselves more often in order to remain “respectable”.

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    • I completely agree! And the fact that this film, for the most part, does not necessarily villainize her for having a high libido. I definitely think that many women can suppress themselves to fit within the social ideology that women are to remain passive, not in control or confident in their own sexuality.

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  3. I just watched the film, he does protest in saying “but you’ve fucked thousands of guys”, however she had just made the determination she would be that one in a million to utterly refuse her sexuality and with everything she has fight it. This resolve was even to the extent of killing him.
    I feel sad because I’ve grown to like his character, and we know his logic, he’s never experienced it and she’s had it soo much, so why would it be any different now, but he in a sense acted out of character… and maybe that’s partly what we didn’t like about the ending, up to that point he had been gentle, understanding and showed no sign of arousal, suddenly the end he walks in and he’s horny as fuck… he doesn’t approach her and say “before you deny your sexuality completely, would you make me the last man you ever have sex with?”. She could’ve said no, or yes, and we’d been okay with either because it would represent what we know of their characters, but instead we get faced with this unlikely event… furthermore, why is her coat on the bed, wouldn’t he have hung it up when she got changed into the pajamas?

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    • The more I think about this ending the more I feel it is not as out of nowhere as you would initially think. Von Trier has a very bleak and cynical outlook on the world. I agree, he could have asked her. But just because she has had sex with tons of men doesn’t mean she should say yes. it’s still her body. But if he had asked, that would have been much better. But not the Von Trier way haha!

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  4. Am I the only one who feels that Joe killed herself? Just curious as the blacked out ending has the sound of a pant being zipped.

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  5. I prefer thinking that Joe felt asleep and dreamed, had a nightmare, that she was about to be abused by her first only friend and then killed him, since it was so difficult for her to accept that she could be accepted by anyone and society as a whole.

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  6. Dude i totally agree with your analysis.. I found the film disturbing while whatching, but the story was great, and the fact she found someone to help her, it was incredible, not to mention how Seligman was such a great character.. So when I saw that ending i just thought: ” I cant believe Lars von Trier screwed up his film like this”.. I felt he throwed the movie away with that ending

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    • Thank you! Although the more I think about it, the more I see how it aligns with Von Trier’s previous work and general cyncial outlook on the world, I can’t see the film ending any other way or even remotely happily. It’s amazing how invested he gets you into Seligman’s character just to rip it away completely.

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  7. Could the ending be different way of looking at the entire story?
    The story of Joe and Seligman is one of Joe storytelling her experiences and struggles, with Seligman trying to show her a way of looking at those experiences in a different light.
    At the start of the story, Joe is a human without faith in her humanity, essentially drained of her will to live *normally*, lost almost. Seligman is an asexual content in his ways.
    At several points, we see Joe’s mental models shift with Seligman’s presented rationale. But don’t we see this happen to Seligman too?

    So at the end we have a Joe reformed to take on the arduous task of ridding herself of her addiction by adopting asexuality. And a sexualised Seligman. I see this as a trasnference in some sense – of desire? Or maybe the general theme that change happens both ways?

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  8. I was really entertained by the movie it connected some of my thought and expressions ,how ever the ending enraged me not as what it seemed like he was to rape her but he wanted to feel what he read about as the unforgiving as sex or sexuality for him was against human nature but his Curiosity and interest what lead him to her because he believed in there relationship ,of course because he never had any to know other ways , i see the end as the unfairness of our world and perfect example of life ;he is the innocent child exploring his new world with a trusty friend she is the human who had tired-some by peoples tendency’s .

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  9. Seligman was meant to judge Jo, and that is a line in the movie. I think that he killed her, and then raped her, and finally found out what it was like to have sex.

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  10. You can see at the end that they both become influenced by the other during their long conversation; Joe decided that she was going to get rid of her sexuality because of the influence of Seligman, but on the other hand, Seligman got aroused in his room by recalling Joe’s stories, so he probably decided to experience his first sexual encounter with another human being (I think it’s clear that he was not going to rape her, he was aroused and curious when he approached her, not aggressive at all). But most important, the ending show us what we, as viewers, try to deny during the film, that Joe is really a bad human being, and Seligman is really a hypocrite.
    He demonstrated his hypocrisy, at the end, by trying to fuck her, and she demonstrated that she was actually that bad human being by not trying to understand him.
    Why Seligman is a hypocrite?
    Seligman didn’t actually understand her, he just wanted her to believe that she wasn’t actually a bad human being, he also didn’t understand her when she said that she wanted to kill a man (at the end she demonstrated that she was capable of it), and he didn’t understand her when she said that she was going to get rid of her sexuality (she really meant it).
    Seligman poses himself as he actually understand her. He probably wanted her friendship at the beginning and that’s why he made up excuses.
    Seligman said that he considered himself asexual, which at the end became false. He had probably never seen a chance for sex or he was self-repressed.
    Why Joe is a bad human being?
    Joe stated several times through her stories that she was selfish, and she did everything for her own pleasure. For example, she abandoned her only son for her own pleasure.
    Joe didn’t care about other people feelings at all. For example, she didn’t care about Mrs. H or her family, she didn’t care about lovers who felt in love with her, and she was going to kill Jerome just because of her jealousy.
    Joe felt pity for a self-repressed pedophile, but she didn’t feel any pity for an old virgin man who was aroused by her stories, she didn’t try to reason with him, instead she killed him, so she can achieve her goal of getting rid of her sexuality.
    As I said above, both were influenced by the other. Joe wanted to get rid of her sexuality because of the influence of Seligman over her. But I think the last line just complete this transfer of attributes of one over the other “but you have fucked thousands of men” demonstrate selfishness, which is the main characteristic of Joe during the film, and is transferred to Seligman.
    Btw, it was Joe who killed Seligman, she wore a jean and boots when she was found beaten in the alley, that’s why you hear a zipper.

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  11. From memory, all Joe’s liaisons throughout the movie were consensual (the older man in the train being perhaps debatable). Seligman’s attempted coitus at the end, if I’m not mistaken, was the one and only time Joe was presented with sex without her prior consent. Joe’s morals were certainly skewed from what we consider normal, and yet she showed herself to be a deep thinker with very well defined morals (recall the climax at the therapy session). The ending showed Seligman to be much more nuanced than we were lead to believe, but more importantly for me, also showed Joe to have great conviction in her morals.

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  12. Lars Von Trier’s movies are about concepts, not individuals. Many of them are barely even about humanity because the themes are specifically not unique to humans.

    Breaking the waves – faith
    Manderlay – racism
    Antichrist – women
    Melancholia – death
    Nymphomania – sex

    Because of this, you have to interpret the ending as how it relates to the concept, rather than the egos of the individual characters. The ending means that no matter what high-minded ideals one may have, no matter how many layers of abstraction between consciousness and nature: DNA replication will win out in the end. This story is common to all living things, but Lars tells this story to remind us lest we forget and spiral into delusions about our true nature as living things.
    I don’t personally agree that it’s an eternal truth, but I understand how one reaches that conclusion as well as the utilitarian practicality of the idea. I encourage everyone to take a step back and see the big picture of his stories.

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  13. Throughout the movie, Joe expresses her desire and love for being a Nymphomaniac. In her own perspective, it is the natural order. Women are psychologically nurtured throughout their lives to suppress their sexual appetites and to subordinate themselves to what society considers as ethical or moral. She challenged society to the point that she couldn’t find a single human being (hence a social outcast) who is willing to accept his true nature (basic human drives) devoid of empathy, sentimentality, morals, etc which human beings fabricate.She shunned these delusional concepts and affirmed that we are social animals. In the end, she took a decision to accept and challenge her realization of her natural sexual obsession. This does not mean she bowed down to what society endorses as “right”, but she took a far more difficult decision which is challenging and altering her natural basic drive.
    Siegman which means “blessed man” in Yiddish might seem as a blessed man. Siegman lacked the experience that Joe possessed. He supported his arguments from books that he has read, while Joe refuted or confirmed them by giving examples from her life experiences. She deduced according to her practical insight while Siegman deduced according to his theoretical point of view. In the final scene, the old man realized that he should act upon his asexuality, a final decision which he wanted to confront and be done with. Siegman’s last action was a confirmation for Joe that you cannot get rid of sexuality. Lars Von Trier specifically chose an asexual old virgin man to portray that nothing can hinder or stop your natural drives (even though he didn’t get an erection). Insisting on her decision, she kills Siegman and leaves the apartment. The “blessed man” turned out to be not so blessed. She gunned down the man who made her feel at ease with herself.

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  14. To me the bed squeaks at the end suggest sex. Remember Joe said there is something that arouses every man? So was Saligman really asexual? My take on the ending was that Saligman wrestled the gun from Joe, killed her and had sex with the corpse. Too late for Joe to figure out Saligman is a necrophiliac.

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  15. I found these films beautiful, balanced, and poetic. They, along with Antichrist and Melancholia, we’re meant to represent different forms of depression. Antichrist was volatile, angry, and explosive. Melancholia, on the other hand, was a slow, agonising decent into hopelessness. The Nymphomaniac films were unlike the first two in the fact that they represented a completely separate form of depression, one I am all too familiar with. It represented a lonely, cynical, detached depression where the individual wants nothing more than to feel something. This search for sensation often leads those who suffer from it to participate in self harm, but these films personified that self abuse in the form of intense sexuality.
    The scene that best personifies this search for sensation comes in the first film. Joe’s father is slowly dying, and she wishes to feel something other than sadness and searches for it in the loins of the hospitals staff. There are many other examples of this, but I would rather get back on the subject at hand.
    Until the end, Seligman was an honest to god relief. He was a character with whom I could relate. For once, I found someone like myself in film; not only was he asexual, but an obvious INTP. He was fascinated by similar subjects, and isolated himself from society choosing the comfort of books and his late cat. He expressed the loneliness with great accuracy, and yet staid true to his charecters’ need for isolation. He was more close minded than myself, but the feeling of kinship was all the same. I understand what Lars was trying to convey, but I still resent his overall decision. The lack of an erection confirms his asexuality, but his actions as a whole did not fit his character in the slightest.
    Any-who, that was my rant.

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  16. I think Andy’s analysis of the end is very precise. The characters are not flat, they grow and develop. Her storytelling goes on for hours, he is influenced by that story, and becomes overwhelmed by the curiosity. Although he does not have an erection, he wants that experience, something of it. It is interesting how the movie was advertised and what it’s subtitle is: “forget about love”. The whole movie is heading in that direction- you should forget about love- there’s no love in this world, and no understanding. In my point of view that’s one of the main messages of the movie. For me the film is primarily a very detailed analysis of addiction. The-heavy addiction leading to social isolation, and ultimately leading to madness and crime. The film is also about loneliness. Her character tried to overcome loneliness and emtyness by having a lots of sex¸, seeing sex as a way to live her life to save her- to be the choosen one (the dream). Her addiction leads her to more emtyness and isolation- as in all addictions- alcohol, drugs and similar- it’s a spiral thing. His character is also lonely, he solves it in a different way, denying impulses of the body- the sexuality. Both are sick and both are in imbalance and extreme. The end is highly probable and realistic and consistent with both characters. Her addiction leeds her more and more to the dark side, before he finds her, she is very much so totally destroyed by her addiction and heading towards some bitter end, probably prison. By killing him she is surely going to go to prison- and become an actual outcast from society. Killing him at the same time was the end of her dream that she can recover to be a normal member of society- it was the end of her secret dream to be accepted by society- she became a murderer- she was many bad things- cold and without empathy just to get her fix, and by talking to him she started to become more normal going to her decision that she should leave her addicton behind and figh it to become more normal- forget it- she is now a murderer. On the other hand-his hunger for her stories , the hunger of the desperate and lonely man, wanting to enter her mind and then body. He is in his charater all the way throught- I don’t see that he is out of it when he asks her for sex.
    They do not understand each other at all – the understanding- and so called love is an illusion-and this is emphasized with such ending.
    I think it’s perfect, it can not be better ending then this.
    The analysis of her addiction is so perfect that I actually think that was inspired from a true story, for sure. Trier has mental problems, psychological problems that he talks about openly and goes to therapy all his life… and he probobly knows a lot of people with similar problems from group therapy or something like this. I think most of the line of development of the disease is so convincingly real as from a textbook of development of the disease- nymphomania- with very private and specific details- that lead me to think is a based on true expirience of some women.
    As for potencial ending- that someone suggested- a necrophilic sex- it would be more in the character of Joe that she had sex with his corpse. As we know she had had problems with having pleasure from normal sex- and this would be something she never tried- so an erecction is possible when death occurs. Sounds sick- but can be- also can be he had sex with her corps- can mean that she was at last been become an object by men-and she wasnt that for entire movie- she is a rebel- anyway I don’t think thats the end- I think she kills him- she becomes murderer and that’s her tragedy- her sickness had eaten her…

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