04/01/2014 05:12 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

Sex! Violence! Religion! Cinema! (Not Another Biblical Epic, But Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

The final minute of a Lars von Trier movie threatens to make or break every other frame of the preceding spectacle, to justify or condemn all that led up to the punch line. In the case of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark the finale was a filmic, eye-of-god gesture tacked on to some relentlessly naturalistic filmmaking. In his later films, the endings turn to realism, but are no less unsettling, disrupting our spiritual sensibilities and moral musings alike.

The endings are unsettling not only to the audience but also to the whole narrative that's just been constructed. So, it's no spoiler to say that the threads of the four hours of Nymphomaniac unspool in the final minute. (I'm here commenting on Volumes 1 and 2 that are being released separately but really comprise a whole and are arguably inconceivable as distinct entities.)

The story within the story is Joe's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) life story of nymphomania. That is her term for her drives, and she proudly claims it. She tells her story to the Good Samaritan, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who has found her beaten and left for dead in an alley. He takes her in, gives her tea, with milk, a bed to lie down in, and she begins her tales.

Joes' recountings are not for the squeamish, and whether or not they are sexually arousing to the audience is one of the tricks von Trier is playing with. The world of the storyteller (Joe), the primary diegetic listener (Seligman), and we the audience members are stitched together in the flashbacks so that we all seem to be watching the same thing in the same way. Von Trier would like nothing more than to indict us all.

The simple construction of the present time (an alley that looks like a Broadway musical set; Seligman's spartan, slightly disgusting little flat) contrasts with the robust life of the flashbacks. Props around Seligman's decaying room become chapter headings for Joe's story: a fly fishing lure stuck in wallpaper, a wall stain, an icon of Mother Mary. There is more than a nod here to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's early feminist story "The Yellow Wallpaper," with similar ambiguous endings.

Joe and Seligman bicker over analogies to her life of "sex addiction" (as her brief stint with a therapy group sterilely calls it). With each retold chapter and scene Seligman points out relations to ancient philosophical or modern psychoanalytical ideas, or quasi-relevant stories in history or myth. He nonchalantly, naively, links Joes' sexual escapades to fly fishing, Freudian fantasies, and Fibonacci numbers. When she tells of a "spontaneous orgasm" at age 12, accompanied by a vision of mystical beings, Seligman interprets one being as the Whore of Babylon and the other as Emperor Claudius's wife, Messalina, historically considered a nymphomaniac. His interpretations mimic and preclude scholarly theoretical takes on the film.

Yet Seligman, who remains mainly non-judgmental through it all, has his limits for what he can believe. After the mystical orgasm account he tells her: "Your story is like a blasphemous retelling of the transfiguration of Jesus."

At the same time, he's not out to defend religion. He's an atheist Jew who keeps a reproduction of an Eastern Orthodox icon of Madonna and Child on his wall. He's equally skeptical of all corporeal accounting of life. "The concept of religion, like the concept of sex, is interesting to me," he says, "But you won't find me on my knees to either." He is gnostic mind to her knowing body.

He is also virgin to her whore. He fails to be aroused by her stories, when so many others have been. He says he can hear her stories because, "I'm a virgin, I'm innocent," as the camera cuts to the Madonna icon on the wall across the room. At times he digresses with his analogies, misses her point, but she brings him back on track and he proves himself a capable listener. Joe responds by going further into her story, ultimately leading to the tale of how she ended up battered in alley, a condition that Seligman and the audience may be more worried about than she is.

Strange though it may sound, considering the preceding, Nymphomaniac is von Trier's funniest film. He's tackling serious subjects while taking the Mickey out of the audience. Much of the humor is achieved through self-referential filmmaking, playing with Joe's story-lined flashbacks as extra-filmic flourishes flitter across the screen, again fusing diegetic storytelling with the audience.

Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) is the most humorous, unsettling though our own laughter may be. (All the extra characters are alphabetic characters: the childhood friend B, the sexual relations are F, G, and K, and Jo's protégé is P.) Mrs. H is a mother and wife grieving the loss of her husband to this young sexually charged woman, and it's certainly a tragic tale, but as she brings her three young boys to Joe's apartment to see the "whoring bed," we know something else is up. The camera follows her for a good five minutes, ranting and ironizing around Joe's flat. Thurman pulls off the simultaneous pathos and self-reflexive humor fluidly.

Von Trier struggles with women, as much as with God. He engages feminist themes head on and Nymphomaniac is not qualitatively different from Thelma and Louise or the feminist films of Sally Potter and Jane Campion. Nymphomaniac has got all the earmarks of a post-Breaking the Waves von Trier film: a woman troubled by some physical or psychic abnormality, a man of science and rationality (almost always a doctor) trying to normalize the woman. But while the woman in each case goes through degrading and disturbing activities, some of her own volition and some not, the camera's point of view consistently sides with the woman protagonist.

It is her story that is being told, and I think it is arguable that von Trier's films attempt to salvage the story of the woman characters. This one succeeds better than most. As the ever-astute Manohla Dargis says in the New York Times: "Women suffer in Mr. von Trier's films, yet they also dominate, shape and haunt his work." Yes, bad things happen to Joe/Bess/Selma/Grace, but the final minute of each story stands as a filmic redemption.

Which makes von Trier's films little different than The Passion of the Christ and Son of God.