Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Volume II concludes the story being told by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) and ends with both a literal and figurative bang. However, this half of the film is slightly weaker than the first, with digressions that even Joe indicates are losing the thread of the story.
As the film opens, Joe is married to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and they soon have a child. However, she has become numb sexually, and despite heroic efforts to satiate his wife, Jerome suggests she see other men (a theme von Trier covered in Breaking the Waves). Joe does, with characteristic passion. She tries to bed two African men in a scene that has her comically framed by their enormous erections. She also embarks on a series of extended visits to an intense sadist, K (Jamie Bell), that become increasingly more abusive, especially when he administers the “silent duck.” Von Trier seems to insist on rubbing the audience’s whole face, not just their nose, in genitalia, bruises, pubic hair and blood. This film is rarely pleasurable; it is as if the filmmaker was holding a warped mirror up to viewers who thought a film about sex addiction would be titillating.
Nymphomaniac: Volume II also provides some insight into Seligman’s character as he discusses his own sexual history (or rather, lack thereof) in between discussions of the Eastern and Western church, classical music, and other topics. In fact, Joe and Seligman have much more profound debates in this segment—about society, hypocrisy, and satanic omens—as well as discussions about knots and soul trees. It culminates in a dialogue about guilt and blame that make von Trier’s points about society and its malcontents. These ideas are powerful but they may get lost in some of the film’s narrative curlicues.
For example, there is a manipulative sequence involving Joe leaving her infant son home alone so she can meet K for a sadomasochistic session. Of course, the child climbs out of the crib and into danger (shades of Antichrist). Should/Is Joe be(ing) punished for her bad parenting and selfish desires?
Moreover, are her efforts to reclaim her sexuality problematic or empowering? A scene where she dresses down the members of a sex addicts anonymous group suggests the latter, but this episode, which promotes Joe’s abstinence, is the least interesting of the vignettes.
In contrast, a late act subplot in which Joe “collects debts” by humiliating one debtor (Jean-Marc Barr) by preying on his sexual deviance, is far more interesting—especially when she “apologizes” for her behavior by fellating him. This act raises issues of pity and shame, and identifies Joe and the debtor as sexual outcasts.
Nymphomanic: Volume II needs to explore these themes more completely, which might require another two-hour film. Instead the film forces its conclusion, with a penultimate sequence that reveals how Joe wound up wounded in the alley. But this seems as contrived as an expected exchange between Joe and Seligman that brings about the corker of an ending.
Nevertheless, von Trier provides Joe with a critical speech on sexuality as being the most important component of an individual’s identity, and she is convincing, even if the film overall is slightly disappointing.
Nymphomanic: Volume II opens today in Philly area theaters.