If the first installment of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac blended the farcical and tragic in a manner that underscored the folly of thinking one could ever put biological appetites neatly away, in a little box on the bookshelf, Nymphomaniac: Volume II wanders further into the darkened forest of human desire and compulsion. Part wild stallion and part brutish gorilla, it’s a formidable and inherently contradictory cinematic disquisition—it agitates against over-analysis, even as itself it analyzes how unspoken yearnings bend and twist behavior to their will. Above all, while not without its faults, it’s a reminder that the world of film needs taskmaster provocateurs like von Trier, pushing back against tidiness and challenging audiences.
Nymphomaniac: Volume II picks up where its predecessor leaves off, with self-diagnosed sex addict Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) still recounting the events of her life in flashback to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a bookish hermit who finds her beaten on the street and takes her back to his modest apartment to tend her wounds. In her story, Joe is now married to Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), with whom she has a baby. She’s also completely devoid of sexual feeling or satisfaction, which leads to Jerôme granting Joe the ability to take other lovers. She does, which leads to edgy liaisons with complete strangers (she’s ethnically curious) as well as an ongoing relationship with K (Jamie Bell), a mysterious bondage-specialist dom who sort of becomes Joe’s Mr. Darcy by way of Christian Grey. Joe also begins working as a debt collector for L (Willem Dafoe), and, at his suggestion, takes on a youthful protégé, P (Mia Goth).
Von Trier’s commingled intellectualism and grasp of craft are what make this such a beguiling and essential work. Working with cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, the Danish filmmaker creates a spare and antiseptic yet artful world (even K’s bondage office is stripped free of any titillation, bathed in humdrum fluorescent lights), where ideas are pushed to the forefront, over form.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I had a heat and wildcat energy all its own. It was a fantasy construct, yes, a cinematic experiment, but it not merely sustained the theories it wanted to explore but made them sing within the context of a narrative. In its narrowed focus, Nymphomaniac: Volume II is a more difficult work to judge, in every respect. The punch of what is seemingly one of von Trier’s main points—that the self-help world, for instance, as embodied by sex addicts meetings Joe attends, is a kind of masking agent for the inescapable roiling chaos of the human sex drive—provides for some terrifically entertaining moments. And heady academic soliloquies still abound, as with a digression that assays the effects of the great schism of Christianity, between East and West.
But, out of obligation and design, Nymphomaniac: Volume II is also denser, more plotted and dependent on payoffs established in the first movie. With Gainsbourg rather than Stacy Martin portraying the adult Joe in most of its scenes, the movie takes on a subdued and programmatic quality, beholden as it is to her flattened affect. (It’s an odd and jarring choice to age up Joe, from Martin to Gainsbourg, while still retaining LaBeouf for all scenes of consequence involving Joe, until the end.) The film rushes past seemingly rich avenues for devilish exploration of the sort which usually delight von Trier—the potential humor, for instance, of an Afrikaans translator approaching two strangers for sex on Joe’s behalf—and some of its developments, particularly in relation to the nature of Joe’s burgeoning relationship with P, don’t quite ring true.
All of which brings us to the film’s ending, which is unavoidably polarizing. Thematically, it’s certainly of a piece with von Trier’s overarching thesis, which is that sex, or more specifically sexual impulse, is a great driver of destruction. But it also rankles, both because it feels so darkly predictable and because one can almost feel von Trier standing to the left of camera, smirking in self-satisfaction. It’s not so much the endpoint at which he arrives that’s bothersome, but the manner in which that ripcord is pulled. After almost four hours, it’s a bleakly delivered payoff that feels nipped from a lesser genre work, and not subjected to the same intellectual rigors as the rest of the films. Not all mind-fucks are created equal, Nymphomaniac: Volume II reminds us.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annualand ShockYa, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth, Stacy Martin, Kate Ashfield, Jean-Marc Barr
Release Date: Apr. 4, 2014