Review: Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
My review of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I can be found here. Both volumes are now playing locally at the Violet Crown Cinema and are also available to rent through cable & digital VOD providers, including iTunes.
While the first installment of Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac focused on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) graphically retelling the stories of her sexual history as a young woman to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), Nymphomaniac: Vol. II shifts to her adulthood. She's on an endless quest to recreate the enormity of feeling from a spontaneous orgasm she once experienced as a pre-teen, but as the story picks back up, we're at a stage where she basically has lost all sexual desire and, even worse, any pleasure from having sex. Joe has gone numb and can no longer have an orgasm, a loss that nearly destroys her ability to function. She goes on a quest to "rehabilitate her sexuality" and finds that her desires run much darker than she'd ever realized.
By now she has married Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and they have a son. Her maternal instinct is strong, but her instatiable carnal needs are stronger. Jerome encourages her to take lovers, but she's not particularly interested in a traditional affair. She begins to see K (Jamie Bell) and enters into a deeply disturbing BDSM relationship with him where she gets off by being punched in the face and beaten with a leather riding crop while being tied down to a couch. There were a few moments during these scenes that made me flinch and much like Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, there will be some audience members who cannot abide the sexual violence.
Gainsbourg herself is no stranger to controversy (she recorded a duet with her famous father Serge when she was only 12 years old called "Lemon Incest"), but is laid bare and exposed here in a way that very few leading ladies would ever dare in this movie. There is also a direct parallel to Antichrist, Gainsbourg's previous collaboration with Von Trier, right down to the score of one sequence.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II has considerably less on-screen sex than the first film, but somehow this half is still more perverse and shocking. Maybe it's the S&M aspect or maybe it's seeing the impact that Joe's desires have on her family life, but by spying on some of these darker moments I think that the burden of guilt transfers onto the viewer (at least to some small degree). Just when you think that there could be some relief when Joe is forced to attend a group for sex addicts, she stands up to proclaim "I love my filthy, dirty lust." As a sexual outcast, Joe is used and abused for her own pleasure. She is not looking to be forgiven for her transgressions, she only wants to fight back against a society who deem her desires vile.
Von Trier artfully blends beautifully composed shots from nature with appalling close-ups that are not usually seen outside of actual pornography. Things are far more serious this time around, but one hopes that after spending four hours listening to Joe tell her story that we'll be rewarded for our patience. Unfortunately, that isn't the case as the story winds to a close. I think I can understand what Von Trier's intent is with the ending, but it's rather, no pun intended, anti-climactic and boorish after all we've seen to that point.
While the ending left me cold, I can't help but be intrigued to see the even longer 5.5-hour extended cut of the film that is expected to eventually be released. The second half of the film as it stands feels somewhat incomplete, but time will tell if the scenes that were deleted to create the 4-hour version will flesh things out in a more satisfactory manner. Nymphomaniac is a movie that is difficult to recommend -- I think there are flashes of brilliance, but the occasionally brutal content in the second half and a polarizing ending leave this squarely in the hands of only the most adventurous viewers.