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Lars Von Trier made one of the best films of the year, and perhaps one of the best films of his career… and then betrayed us all with a cheap, gimmicky ending.

In the first half of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (as I have previously reviewed on Nerdist), Our sex-addicted antiheroine Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as a young woman) related a long tale to a gentle rescuer named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) about how her nymphomania had led her into a life of obsessive iniquity and moral uncertainty. The first half ended with Joe announcing that she spontaneously lost all sexual feelings in her genitals, which is essentially the worst crisis a nymphomaniac can have. I was very taken by the robust artiness of the first half, and it seemed that Von Trier was finally, forcibly growing out of his affected misery, self-indulgent depression, and wannabe-naughty misanthropy.

The second half, released in theaters separately, continues the artistic greatness of the first half, exploring Joe’s soul into unexpectedly sympathetic places. This is the first film Von Trier has directed that actually seems hopeful about the human experience. As Joe commits more and more insensitive acts to feed her insatiable sexual appetite (she leaves her husband and child in favor of a sadist-for-hire played by the ever-so-handsome Jamie Bell, to cite one notable example), we begin to see her quandary. Her appetites are a show of sexual power and freedom – it’s part of who she is – but her compulsive need for sexual contact overwhelms her ability for lasting emotional contact. This is all explored free of prurience, preachiness, or judgment, just as in Volume I. This is not a film to titillate. It’s not a film to tut-tut. This is a film to explore.

Nymphomaniac II bondage

Since Von Trier still has the streak of the adolescent male in him, the exploration is handled more through a gentle sort of intellectualization rather than a truly empathetic eye; Sentimental empathy is most certainly not Von Trier’s MO. As such, the film bends over backward to wrap itself around all kinds of arch artistic experiments that luckily work more often than they don’t. Von Trier is just allowing himself to breathe, letting the characters tell their tale in their own time. The burning question Joe keeps asking is whether or not she’s a good person, with the Dionysian Joe insisting that her moral compass is broken, and the Apollonian Seligman defending her. Seligman, you see, reveals he is asexual, making him the perfect person to hear the tale of the nymphomaniac.

Until the last 90 seconds of film, Von Trier has made what can be considered one of the best films of the year. It’s sensitive, dark, light, funny, lithe, muscular, brainy and brawny all at once. Sure, it tries to elicit shocks with its closeups of genitals and unflinchingly violent sexuality, and one can easily accuse Nymphomaniac of being cheap with some of its protracted plot twists (Jerôme, played by Shia LaBeouf, re-enters Joe’s story in a few admittedly unbelievable ways), but I don’t see the artificial shock moments to be included for shock’s sake. They are there to lend texture to this story. Rawness. Discomfort. The shock serves a tonal function.

But then – and here I breathe a rather heavy sigh – Von Trier just couldn’t let well enough alone. The final 90 seconds of film betray everything that came before it. And not in a way that makes logical sense within the film’s context. The characters just suddenly behave completely out of character, and the gentle, well-earned ending is stepped on. After four hours of rough, dark psychological analysis and eventual hints at empathy and even redemption, Von Trier – possibly because he just can’t help himself – raises a big middle finger to the audience. I don’t want to reveal what happens, but the final scene is enough to enrage.

Nymphomaniac II crying

And it’s not because Von Trier is tilting back into his usual misanthropy and depression; I would be fine if the ending was unexpectedly tragic and even misanthropic. This is not a tragic ending. This is a filmmaker – for unfathomable reasons – intentionally betraying his own movie with what amounts to be a cute joke. I could only call it an emotional cheap shot if it made any sense whatsoever. To elucidate, it would be as if Darth Vader appeared in the final five seconds of Star Wars, murdered all the characters very quickly, and then looked at the camera as a trombone played a “wah-wah-wah” on the soundtrack.

This is a great movie – one that I still whole-heartedly recommend – that commits seppuku. I’m still upset about it. Maybe someday I’ll put that little twist into context, but right now I want to make the following recommendation: See this film, and then walk out right when Joe says she’s going to go to sleep. You’ll like it better.

Rating: 4 Burritos

4 burritos

Final Rating (The whole of Nymphomaniac, minus 90 seconds): 5 Burritos

5 burritos

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  1. russell says:

    I totally agree I had the same reaction. That big middle finger to the audience shocked me. wha’ happen? you were doing so well *sigh* I’m still trying to work out its meaning. i’ll watch it again minus the 90 seconds

  2. taylor says:

    I COMPLETELY agree!! The movie was great…. UNTIL THE AWFUL ENDING. I could not believe It. I can’t accept the whole movie with that ending though. It literally ruined the last 4 hours I spent watching it. I just can’t believe the ending he tried to throw at us. That was unbelievable. I will forever give this movie 0 points or stars. 

  3. Joe says:

    Now that I have slept on this; I digress.

    I can’t prove it, and t may not be the intention of the film producer, but this final shock must mean something. It can’t be that dumb, since it does appear so doesn’t it?
    I think the numbers play a major role, they send a message.
    The ending isn’t clear. It’s actually done in darkness. We don’t know if anyone was shot or not. we just know she got up after not him, since she had her pants to wear in the room to wear and zip up, he came in pant less. So assumption is ‘she killed him’ . Why wasn’t that shown?

    I think the fact he’s a virgin is another factor in this ending.

    If I’m correct, then as deep as this movies goes, this ending is a couple of miles below. It will only be visible to those who endeavor to understand the different topics and their interpretation. Ex. why the little title: silent duck? etc. The Fibonacci numbers, etc.

    Man would this be the quite the chef-d’oeuvre if I’m interpreting this correctly.
    But it would also mean that ‘Nice Dream’s ‘ excellent reply above may be entirely off.

  4. Joe says:

    The ending doesn’t make sense like this article says. perfectly put.  And the only way this ending makes sense, is if Joe lied about the whole thing and simply needed shelter from the street.

  5. Ben says:

    This review was so spot on. The last 90 seconds took Seligman completely out of character and ruined the movie for me. I saw it coming and prayed it wouldn’t happen. I quite enjoyed the movie up until that point.

  6. Cuttingham says:

    100% agree. Just watched the whole thing and was so pissed off at the last minute Fu to anyone that was paying attention. What a great way to put an M Knight flaccid money shot on an otherwise brave journey.  

  7. iota says:

    To be honest, I thought Joe was going to commit suicide; then we would’ve to endure watching Seligman be aroused by her dead body (LOL)…purely because the subtext of the film was very much concerned with sexual proclivity. 

  8. nicedream says:

    just watched nymphomaniac 2. the ending, while disappointing, rang true for me. Seligman is repressed and Joe is in a state of extreme emotional duress (masked by her calm, rational-sounding voice as narrator, which she uses to ingratiate herself to Seligman, in keeping with her character). neither character is acting in a normal way at the end of the film, because the circumstances are highly unusual.

    their whole dialogue is a blend of philosophical debate and confession. Seligman tries to convince Joe that her sexuality is understandable, but he is just spouting from his cerebral constructs…what he knows from books. It’s all theoretical. He is a humanist…with a philosophy of compassion, informed by religion. Joe keeps saying that his humanism is based on empathy, but Joe doesn’t believe in empathy. And it makes sense…everytime she has felt connection to human beings, that connection has been volatile, starting with her competitive best friend, to her ex-husband who pimps her out to other lovers, to P, who pees on her (punny).

    She says many times to Seligman that he’s not listening, and in the end, Joe is right. He was listening in a purely intellectual way the whole time. And he truly believed in what he said and felt. But the Freudian Id had other plans…the content of Joe’s salacious story was working on the primal part of Seligman’s personality…long repressed. I’ve known lots of men like Seligman…intellectual or spiritual, who are disconnected from their emotions and urges. Remember, we only learn a small bit about Seligman and a lot about Joe. We don’t really know his character all that well. So, he turns out to be more complex…and much more realistic…than simply a bookish, asexual old man.

    Joe’s philosophy is based on…i guess she’s into existentialism, Darwin and Nietzsche. She believes people are essentially alone, although she wishes that weren’t true (as she whispers, beaten in the snow, “Fill all my holes,” in one of the more poignant scenes of film history). She wants to believe in spirituality and empathy, but sexuality and selfishness seem to preclude those higher ideals from existence. People don’t *want* to feel each other. We are animals, and that’s what the cat-flap means at the end of the movie. Joe’s brutal, animalistic philosophy wins the argument, this time.

    Through rational dialogue, Seligman suceeds in convincing Joe of his philosophy…or at least, he makes her believe in some sort of life-change. She is in a state of catharsis and has hope, but just a few hours ago, she was in a homicidal state of mind. When Seligman’s irrational impulses take hold of him, and he tries to take advantage of her, he takes away the small beam of hope, leaving her back in her disturbed, homicidal psyche.

    Although I hated to see that happen to her character, I have to say, I totally believed in the ending. It was fucked up, but in keeping with both characters. I think there is still hope for both Joe and Seligman (who may not be dead), although it seems a bleak hope.

    • Joe says:

      This is very well put. I’m still not sure it can be like this. Are we sure Seligman’s dead? maybe joe killed herself…

  9. Underwhelmed says:

    The only problem with the ending is that, based on the previous 4 hours, he would not have done what he did, and she would not have responded the way she did. There were many other scenarios that would have been plausible and motivated and achieved the same outcome. If he had used one, it might have made one of the points some have invented here.
    His version simply turned it into a shaggy dog story.

  10. Jim says:

    I’m not entirely sure it was Jo that shot Seligman.  They left it dark, there was a struggle, and maybe he wrested the gun away from her and he was the one who pulled the trigger?  After all, we hear someone zipping up an article of clothing afterward, but it was still dark.  Was it a pair of pants? If so, perhaps it was Seligman.  Wasn’t Jo in a skirt?  And if so, was it the kind that had a zipper?  Who knows? 

  11. Martin A. says:

    Excellent review, thanks. I was initially taken aback and disappointed by the seemingly ‘cheap shot’ ending as well, but then, after thinking about it for a while, changed my mind.

    Because let’s not forget that Joe had just spent several hours cathartically unburdening herself, and had finally found the strength and resolve start exorcizing her sexual demons once and for all — in great part because she thought that she’d finally found a wise and non-judgmental friend in Seligman whom she could trust as much as she had her father.

    But then, after promising to make sure that she wouldn’t be disturbed, he comes back into the room and reveals himself to be no better and no wiser than all the other jerks in her life, so I can certainly understand her disappointment and rage. It’s just unfortunate for him that she happened to have a loaded gun close to hand, otherwise he might just have got a slap across the face. Yet another of those quirky and poignant little twists of fate that pepper the movie, often… and clearly deliberately…. stretching credulity to the breaking point. I’m just sorry that it didn’t work for you, W.S.

  12. HypocricyWorksBothWays says:

    “Poor girl??  You mean the “poor girl” who essentially raped an unwilling man on a train?  (“No, no, please, stop…”).   

  13. trent roller says:

    Movie was crap

  14. hono.lulu says:

    i think she killed herself because you can hear someone zipping up their pants and running out the door. She killed herself because as a nymphomaniac along with Seligman’s sexual advance,  she couldn’t hold up to her commitment to abandon her perverted nature. So the easiest way to to keep herself from having sex was to kill herself. That was, in her mind, her only escape.

  15. Sarah says: