Nymphomaniac: Volume II

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/04/14 08:08:02

"A.K.A. Lars And The Real Girl"
5 stars (Awesome)

When we last saw Joe, the sexually voracious heroine of "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1," controversial Danish director Lars von Trier's epic-length examination of one woman's lifelong sexual odyssey, she had just discovered that she no longer had any feeling in her genitalia--an affliction that might be of a benefit for any character who is at that moment involved in a sexual relationship with someone played by Shia LaBeouf but more than a bit troubling for anyone for whom sexual desire and satisfaction is essentially the very thing that defines her as a person. "Nymphomaniac: Volume 2" charts her painstaking efforts to get her groove back while eventually revealing how she came to be found beaten and barely conscious in a dank alleyway in the opening of the first installment. Although not a stand-alone film by any means--there is no point in seeing this without having seen "Volume 1"--"Volume 2" is nevertheless an excellent and provocative work that is darker and more emotionally resonant than its predecessor while also supplying plenty of mordant, self-reflexive wit, moments of genuine eroticism and not a few moments of outright taboo-breaking to boot.

Still recounting her tale to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the timid and repressed scholar who took her in after finding her in the alley, via chapters inspired by the items in his sparsely attired apartment, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in the performance of her career) reveals that she had her first orgasm at the age of 12, a spontaneous event accompanied by her levitating off the ground and visions of the Whore of Babylon and Messalina, the third wife of Claudius and one of history's most infamous nymphomaniacs. Seligman, in return, offers a somewhat less surprising revelation when he admits to being a completely asexual virgin, thereby explaining why Joe's stories have aroused only theoretics and symbolic interpretations instead of even the faintest stirrings of lust. Of all the stumbles that Joe has endured in her life, pouring out her story to someone who cannot legitimately relate to a single thing that she is saying as anything other than an abstract concept to be cooly dissected is perhaps the most bleakly funny joke in a film filled with them.

As the story picks up, Joe has entered what appears on the surface to be a form of domestic bliss with recurring significant other Jerome (LaBeouf) but her inexplicable loss of sexual fulfillment, coupled with an excursion into motherhood that she is simply not cut out for, has driven her to misery and distraction. Presumably having seen von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," Jerome suggests that Joe sleep with other men as a possible cure for her affliction--inevitably, his cool and understanding falls apart the moment that she actually decides to go through with it. When that doesn't work--not for lack of trying--she eventually finds her way to K (a startlingly effective Jamie Bell), a mild-mannered S&M artist who works out of an office space so drab that it makes the DMV look cutting-edge. This eventually gets her going again but when forced to choose between her libido and Jerome and her child, she goes with the former and leaves them both without a moment's hesitation.

After being forced by her employer to go into group therapy to cure her condition--which goes badly right from the start when the leader insists that she refer to herself as a "sex addict" rather than "nymphomaniac"--she takes a quasi-legal job as a debt collector for a loan shark (Willem Dafoe) and finds that she has a peculiar aptitude for getting under people's skin and breaking them psychologically instead of physically (though she is still up for the occasional car torching when necessary). A few years pass and her boss suggests that she cultivate P (newcomer Mia Goth), a 15-year-old girl with a shady family history, as a protege. Joe befriends P and after she turns 18, they becomes lovers and for the first time, Joe is able to relate to someone both physically and emotionally. It can't last, of course, and this relationship leads to a chain of circumstances the ends with Joe being beaten, betrayed and left for dead in that alley.

After watching "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1," I was more than ready to see the conclusion right then and there and I suspect that it works best when taken in all at once. Because "Volume 2" picks up immediately where its predecessor left off, with no recap or anything to ease viewers in, it takes a few minutes to get reacclimatized with everything but once that happens, it proves to be just as engrossing as the first chapter. On paper, it may sound like an absurdly elongated and ridiculously pretentious version of the stuff that pops up on Cinemax late at night. However, von Trier elevates the material with a screenplay that nicely melds philosophy and sexuality, two concepts that have been at odds with one another since the beginning of time. As I discussed the narrative and stylistic gambits that he has deployed in my review of the first film, I won't repeat what I have said before except to note that I was as mesmerized with this one as I was the first time around. Even when viewed in its needlessly bifurcated form, "Nymphomaniac" proves once again that von Trier is one of the most audacious filmmakers working today--even when he makes a terrible movie, it is usually an interesting form of terrible--and thanks to his skills, what might have be utterly monotonous in other hands is absolutely compelling from start to finish.

Of course, a Lars von Trier film wouldn't be a Lars von Trier film without moments of provocation and "Volume 2" has plenty of them. There will no doubt be much discussion about the early scene when Joe, trolling for men to reignite her passion, goes off with two African refugees for a threesome that falls apart when it breaks down into bickering in a language that she doesn't understand--the shot of Charlotte Gainsbourg's head framed by two large and erect penises alone will have the more timid viewers aghast. Frankly, the whole scene seems so silly and deliberate in its button-pushing that it almost seems as if von Trier has included it as a joking jibe at how easy it is to provoke viewers. A far more complex and troubling provocation--one that is arguably the most powerful scene in the film--comes later on when Joe, in her debt collector phase, is interrogating another debtor (Jean-Marc Barr) and eventually intuits that he is a pedophile who has managed to completely sublimate his desires in order to live a proper life. While most would be repulsed by such a person, Joe discovers that she has a strange admiration for and kinship with the man--both are sexual outlaws who are slaves to desires that have been hard-wired in them since birth. In theory, concocting a scene showing admiration for a pedophile seems as insane as jokingly proclaiming a kinship with the Nazis during a Cannes press conference but von Trier pulls it off and the sequence is as striking as the sequence with Uma Thurman in "Volume 1."

As with its predecessor, "Volume 2" again demonstrates that von Trier actually possesses a sense of humor and is even willing to include himself and his artistic pretensions among the targets of his dark wit. The interruptions to Joe's story in which Seligman portentously explains what everything "means"--a clear shot at critics who have overanalyzed von Trier's work over the years--get stranger and stranger until Joe finally snaps back at one by calling it "one of your weakest digressions." There is a hilarious and perverse scene early on involving the young Joe (Stacy Martin), a befuddled waiter (Udo Kier) and a lot of disappearing silverware that plays like an exceptionally kinky Harpo Marx routine. Like the story as a whole, the humor gets darker as things progress and in fact, the entire saga culminates with an exceptionally bleak gag. To be honest, I had been expecting the story to end along these lines all along but by staging it in a way that effectively wraps everything up in as satisfactory a manner as possible while managing to get a laugh in the process, von Trier sticks the landing in a surprisingly effective manner, though I am certain that few viewers will complain that the climax arrives too soon.

In my review of "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1," I described it as "a film that is equal parts sexy, silly, powerful, pretentious, brutally cynical, achingly sincere, gorgeous, grotesque, beautifully acted, impeccably crafted, contrived, controversial and occasionally quite insane, oftentimes veering each one within the confines of the same scene." "Volume 2" continues in that fine tradition and when all is said and done, the result is a dense and complex work that will arouse (intellectually and otherwise) and enrage viewers in equal measure for years to come. Admittedly, this is not a film for everyone but for those who have been yearning for a film to shake them out of their complacency while challenging their notions on sexuality, love and the cinema, "Nymphomaniac" is pretty much a must-see.

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