By Boyd van Hoeij | Indiewire December 17, 2013 at 8:00AM
"The Little Organ School" and chapter six, "The Easter and the Western Church (The Silent Duck)," which opens the second part of what's really one long film, best represent von Trier's unbridled pleasure at mixing things of the body and things of the mind. This is especially the case after the introduction of K (Jamie Bell), a young but demanding master with a small battery of women (mostly homemakers, it seems), who come to be his slave for a couple of hours per week. They can sign up but they don't know what they're signing up for; that's up to him, and there's no way the women can make him stop doing what he’s decided to do.
Of course, von Trier uses the sequence to address S&M in general but on a more metaphorical level, he's talking about being open to the unknown and its more advanced sister, perfect abandon, concepts that help people achieve great heights in both sex and in life — though not without some risk.
Joe ends up at K’s because she needs to learn to let herself go again. After having settled down with Jerome and having a baby with him called Marcel — no-doubt after Marcel Proust, whose "In Search of Lost Time" is one of the obvious literary influences aside from name-checked works such as "The Decameron" and "1001 Nights" — Joe loses the capacity to orgasm.
An interlude with two African brothers, whom she summons to have sex with her but who don't speak English and get into a fight buck naked, as well as a restaurant scene that features von Trier regular Udo Kier as a waiter, form the comic highlights of the story. Both arrive during the sixth chapter, which is as narratively nimble as chapter five and as brimming with ideas. Together, the two chapters represent the core of the film. Everything leading up to that point is an elaborate and spunky set-up (chapters one through three) or filler (chapter four, which juxtaposes sex and death in a not very original way in clichéd black and white imagery). But chapters five and six make up for all the weaknesses or arty longueurs preceding them.
"Organ" and "Church," so to say, are the highlights or sustained climax of the film -- with chapters seven and eight, in which Joe goes to a sex-addict group and becomes a debt collector for a very shady character (Willem Dafoe), respectively, feeling like concessions to the film's linear and symmetrical narrative structure. They reflect a pressure to wrap things up while throwing in a couple more sexual oddities — notably a passive pedophile (Jean-Marc Barr), which gives von Trier the possibility to insert this no-doubt controversial line of dialog: "Pedophiles who don't act on their desire deserve a bloody medal."
In some passages, it's almost as though von Trier is directly addressing his critics: A few exchanges about Seligman's Jewishness as well as one involving the need for politically correct terms so words such as "niggers" can be avoided never quite find an organic way into the text; instead, they call to mind his infamous "Nazi" comments at a Cannes press conference. Rather than letting his characters speak, it's clear that von Trier is simply trying to stir the pot, something that a film containing so much interesting material doesn't really need.
The ending also suffers from pressure to go out with too much of a bang -- though thankfully, it's not how things conclude but the rapport between Joe and Seligman that lingers as a staging of the eternal battle between mind and body.
After two earlier films with von Trier, "Antichrist" and "Melancholia," this third collaboration represents Charlotte Gainsbourg's most fearless and also finest hour as she carries the film with ease. To say her character isn't easy to love would be an understatement, but Gainsbourg manages to turn Joe into more than just a mouthpiece of von Trier's ideas. She's a living, breathing human being who perhaps lacks the intellectual understanding to analyze what she's doing or why she's doing it -- but whose will to live makes her forge ahead no matter what.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening Christmas Day in Denmark, the film should find a welcome audience in its home country. Magnolia will release "Nymphomaniac" on VOD and theaters in March and April. Undoubtedly set to perform well in its immediate release, the film's long-term prospects will rely on whether early word-of-mouth is strong or if audiences will feel let down in their hopes for a more graphic experience.