Fair warning: this review will basically spoil the whole plot of the film. But there are several plot points that are important to explain von Trier’s idea behind the whole endeavour, and without mentioning them the reasoning for this film being von Trier’s manifest for a woman’s right to take control over her own sexuality in a male-dominated world that applies different standards to men and women when it comes to sex would fall apart.
At the end of Volume 1, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) had just lost all ability to come. Orgasm has become an elusive thing for her, just as her relationship with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) settles. He knows he cannot satisfy her, and reluctantly agrees that she should try and find satisfaction elsewhere. Even the child they have together can’t distract Joe from her continuous search to find pleasure again. Her attempts become more extreme, going from trying sex with several men (a rather comical scene with two African guys) to a foray into sadomasochism. She meets K (Jamie Bell), an SM master, and subjects herself to his every whim, letting herself be whipped until she bleeds. She increasingly starts to neglect her home life, which reaches a pinnacle when she leaves her young son at home to go to a session with K, while Jerôme is away. In a self-referencing scene to Antichrist, the boy almost falls to his death off a balcony, but is saved at the last moment when Jerôme comes home just in time. He gives Joe a choice: it’s either her family or her pleasure. Joe chooses the latter, and visits K for one last session where she takes control. While undergoing his ‘treatment,’ she manages to find a way to pleasure herself, and under his lashes she climaxes. She is now free, yet alone.
Joe tries to find help from a psychologist and joins group therapy, a sort of Nymphomaniacs Anonymous, but she gradually realizes that she has to come to peace with being a nymphomaniac, and that the world has simply to accept her for what she is: a woman with strong sexual desires.
Some time later, she meets L (Willem Dafoe), a debt collector, and finds a way to put her sexual experience to good use. As she explains, everybody has a kink, and her ability to sniff it out and put pressure on a person through it is uncanny. Business flourishes, and after a while L suggests she start her own business, and groom a young girl to become her successor. This is P (Mia Goth), an orphan whom Joe slowly befriends until the young girl is putty in her hands. P joins Joe on her debt-collection trips, and one day she brings a gun, which a shocked Joe takes away from her.
One night, in front of a large house, Joe suddenly realizes that their next target is Jerôme. She instructs P to do the collecting on her own, and negotiate a payment scheme. After each subsequent visit that P pays to Jerôme, she returns home later, and on the final night Joe follows her. She finds out that P and Jerôme have started an affair, and aches for revenge. She tries to ambush the two lovers in the alley we first met her in, but she fails as she tries to shoot Jerôme, having forgotten to rack the gun. Jerôme and P beat her up and leave her for dead.
And this is how she ended up in Seligman’s home. While she recounts her story, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) keeps interjecting with analogies and explanations, and he reassures her that she has done nothing wrong. He accepts her strong sexuality as a given fact, and thinks nothing of it. He claims to be a virgin himself, and declares himself asexual, but in the final scene has a dramatic turnaround.
So far, this was a rather straight-up plot description. That is because Lars von Trier lays out his intentions rather clearly in the end, in fact almost hits the viewer over the head with them, so whatever sexual escapades Joe has before it are to some extent irrelevant (and therefore I can largely spoil it). There are a few key moments in this second volume that accentuate von Trier’s position on female sexuality, and these are underscored in one of the last pieces of dialogue by Seligman. First, there is the reference to Antichrist, where we also had a mother who put her sexual pleasure above her family. But where that character severely punished herself for a fatal, but honest mistake (the fact that it is a mistake is crucial here; most people would say she punishes herself too much over it), Joe chooses to take a different route: she takes control over her sex life again. In her final session with K, she may be tied up, but she is pulling all the strings, and this control frees her enough to liberate her sexually. At her last group therapy session, she then takes control completely, to never let go of it again. She is a sexual being, dammit, and she has a right to be. After that, instead of men controlling her, she starts to control men through her sexuality. Von Trier’s point is clear (and unfortunately he feels the need to spell it out as well): the inequality in the way society approaches male and female sexuality is ludicrous, and women have every right to be as sexual as men. Thinking of promiscuous men as studs, and promiscuous women as sluts, is a double standard consistently mocked throughout Nymphomaniac, and this all comes together in Seligman’s final monologue, which also explains why Joe’s name is one that is typically male. What if it were a man who had told Joe’s story? Even Joe herself thinks she is a fallen woman, but that is only a reflection of the double standard that pervades society, even its female half: women should be modest. And then, in a final punchline, von Trier shows just how pervasive it is through Seligman’s about-face. This understanding man, who hasn’t judged Joe for the preceding four hours, finally turns out to be your typical male. One final time for Joe to take control…