It’s a room reminiscent of Freud’s set-up: a woman is reclined, a light from behind setting a glow on her, the makeshift patient.
Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and whose younger self is played by Stacy Martin) wound up in this strange bedroom convalescing under Seligman’s (Stellan Skarsgård) wing after he found her in a wet brick and mortar alley. We might have called it chance if it weren’t for the over-saturation of coincidence in the film. At certain hallmark moments the too-precious serendipity is exhausting, and we don’t offer von Trier the leeway we might for a less seasoned screenwriter.
Joe sets out on a life-long, four-hour recollection of her nymphomaniac condition. Seligman is too eager, moving in careful intervals, scratching his chin; his fascination with this detailed montage of her sexcapades is in medias res, as though he had the bed made and the tea boiling before he found her.
Seligman’s openness is like that of a priest on the other side of the confessional: getting high on this unprecedented access but responding as though asexual. Speaking of priests, the film inevitably challenges us with the choice of whether or not to moralize. Joe is puzzled at Seligman’s very clinical (pedantic, rather) responses to her monologues, and for the viewer it feels measured as we realize that each chapter reveals something more difficult to bear.
She is not a woman with desire and control, rather she is a person succumbing to an appointed vocation — eating for survival and not for pleasure.
Young Joe in Vol. 1 is played by an utterly bored-looking Martin, a young first time model-cum-actress. It’s hard to feel anything for what she gets up to, whether playfully teenage or pregnant and under-stimulated, as present-day Joe narrates the exploits. She is not a woman with desire and control, rather she is a person succumbing to an appointed vocation — eating for survival and not for pleasure.
Joe speaks about the condition methodically, outlining the monotonous routine she managed to find herself in with a full-time job and 10 different fucks per day. Is there even a way to schedule ten partners in a day without a fairly dedicated administrative sense? She loses sensation, and then her husband (Shia Labeouf), and then eventually total hope for her future.
Joe and Seligman realize the sun is coming up and notice a tiny splash of sunlight on the outside of the building directly across from his window. Seligman mentions that he’s never been able to identify what series of reflecting surfaces makes it possible, and there’s a soft feeling of rarity and buoyancy in the mysterious source of light.
Von Trier, it first seems, has attempted to suggest Joe’s nymphomania as a counter-cultural condition — an exercise in chest-puffery where women are capable of living on the man’s side of the double standard, a place where tallying sexual partners at least exists for the other 50 per cent of the world.
But the attempt inevitably folds over on itself. The languorous, digressive nature of the film comes to a sharp head in a series of very slight interactions between these two new friends. The room’s tone changes, some sudden action and then — we exhale, but the relief is only momentary, impulsive. Von Trier brings us to the edge of this sexual capacity from a woman’s perspective and, with the finale, snaps the whole thing back, leaving us with a bleak shadow of what he perhaps lays out as his forecast for female sexuality.