‘Nymphomaniac: Volume II’ Review

I think it’s safe to say, after watching and reflecting on Volume II of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, that we are not in Kansas anymore, and by “Kansas,” I mean, “any form of cinematic realism.” It’s certainly true that Von Trier trades in hyperrealism, and the difference between what is “real” and what isn’t remains debatable within the confines of his disorienting-but-vivid cinematic worlds. However, the formative fumblings of our heroine, Joe — depicted with almost clinical dispassion in Volume I, and beset by their own problems (see my earlier review) — give way in Volume II to violence, crime, rape, murder, and an exploitative bit of lesbianism.

In other words, if Volume I was too much, Volume II is a kitchen sink’s worth of misguided excess.

Consider, for example, the long sequence in Volume II subtitled: “The Dangerous Men.” When we left Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) at the end of Volume I, she had found love and contentment with former lover Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), but then inexplicably lost her ability to orgasm. (Subtle). Frantic with unsatisfied need, Joe rides Jerome into exhaustion, until finally he proposes that, if he’s unable to satisfy her, she should feel free to offset her desires with other men. Of course, the problem isn’t her insatiability but her inability to climax (a point which, inexplicably, she never bothers to mention to Jerome, much less a therapist). In due course, we watch a crazed Joe pursue more and more extreme and dangerous sexual encounters, never achieving her goal. Finally, with nothing left to lose, she engages with a bondage and masochism expert named K (an excellent Jamie Bell), hoping that here, on the true frontier between ecstasy and agony, she will find what she has lost.

It’s an interesting idea, though the way Von Trier bites into the world of BDSM suggests he is largely unable to chew it. The sequence is dichotomous. On the one hand, Joe’s encounters with K brim with a stomach-churning intensity. From a performance standpoint, Gainsbourg and Bell throw themselves so thoroughly into their work that the sequence emerges as a highlight of the film. However, as sometimes happens with Von Trier, pulling back from his magnetically-rendered visions immediately betrays distortions in those visions. The bestselling erotica trilogy 50 Shades of Gray is infamous for portraying BDSM as little more than a kinky parlor game, a splash of cayenne livening up sexual boredom and inexperience. This is a nigh-offensive defanging of the complex sexual world that BDSM and its practitioners inhabit, but Von Trier takes the concept to the opposite extreme. We are forced to watch as K punches Joe in the face and stomach multiple times, ties her up, and brutally beats her. All of this crystallizes in the pair’s final encounter, when a desperate Joe subjects herself to 50 lashes with a knotted flail. The lashing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch on screen, though of course, the mind-flattening brutality of it breaks through whatever ice has glazed over Joe’s pleasure centers.

It’s hard to suss out what Von Trier is trying to say here (or anywhere in this film). Joe has incredible sexual appetites, but when she enters a happy, “mainstream” relationship with Jerome, she loses her sexual power. Only a bloody beating from a sadist reinvigorates her ability to orgasm. There’s something diametrically offensive about this plot point; it manages to disenfranchise both traditional relationships and BDSM relationships at the same time. (We won’t even talk about the fact that one night, Joe leaves her young child unsupervised in her desperation to visit K; Jerome arrives home to find the child perilously close to falling off a balcony).

The film’s final sequences come bounding off the rails with an enthusiasm that can only be characterized as “ill-advised.” Joe reinvents herself as a nail-tough debt collector (?) after failing to keep a regular job (Her nymphomania makes her a pariah, apparently unfit to be around a less-libidinous workforce). She promptly takes a beautiful young protégé, P, under her wing, and it’s not long before the softcore lesbian wish-fullfilment of the traditional male gaze unrolls across the screen. From here, the film winds to a nonsensical conclusion that not only negates any of the emotional currency we as viewers have built up with the present-moment conversations between Joe and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), but also mulishly refuses to offer up any sort of reflection or perspective about the events we have all spent four hours being made uncomfortable by.

I’m not one to take artists at their word. Usually, what they have to say about their own work falls somewhere between mawkishness and nonsense. However, Von Trier’s insistence — buoyed by the statements of his cast in the press — that Joe is an externalization of his own issues provides us with a telling clue about why this simultaneously chilly and over-the-top saga seems plastic, rather than powerful.

The emotional distance of the film, and the extremes (some plausible, some not) that the character go to, would ring with more truth if presented as memoir, but in choosing to dramatize his struggles with sexuality and depression using a fictional female nymphomaniac, Von Trier has placed an extra layer of glass between his audience and his material. This layer keeps us firmly at bay, though whether we are the zoo animal being taunted by a tap on the Plexi or a tourist craning our neck to catch an infuriating, incomplete glimpse of an interesting creature is up for debate. The externalization tactic worked better in Antichrist and Melancholia (both of which also star Gainsbourg and which, with Nymphomaniac, make up Von Trier’s “Depression” trilogy). There, the fugues and furies of Von Trier’s heroines — of Von Trier himself — achieve a universality, a relatability. Joe and her story, however, are so extreme that it almost feels like Von Trier is purposely keeping us from relating to her.

Also, I call shenanigans on Von Trier’s approach, capturing his own sexual transgression and depression on-screen through the vehicle of a thin, beautiful woman subjecting herself to beatings, exploitations, and dysfunctional sexual encounters. What are we supposed to learn, Lars Von Trier, about the thorny jungles of sex and love and mental illness, from Joe’s hyperreal experiences? It strikes one as a cowardly masochist’s excuse for billing a de facto de Sade riff as auteur-pr0n, more masturbatory than if Von Trier had bothered to step in front of the camera himself.

In the end, this is why Joe doesn’t feel “real”: She’s not a fully-realized character. In that light, she’s actually alone among Von Trier’s other female self analogues, such as Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Even Bjork’s Selma in Dancer in the Dark (plagued by its own issues with hyperreality) feels like a three-dimensional person, caught between conflicting desires and emotions. Joe, however, is a paper-thin manifestation of hunger, as indiscriminate as fire and equally hard to empathize with. Any emotional connection we may have forged with her in Volume I (her devastation at the death of her beloved father; her happiness and then despair with Jerome) dissipates in the full-bore ultraviolet rays of Volume II’s determination to be as salacious as possible, rationale be damned. Perhaps if Nymphomaniac’s flavor was less bleak, the cartoonishness of its narrative wouldn’t be quite so hard to take. As it stands, though, the dissonance between the film’s events and the film’s tone is so great, we can’t hear the melody for the noise.

At its conclusion, one final, shocking act punctuates Nymphomaniac’s lengthy sentence, perpetrated in a fade-to-black. Sound is our only clue to what’s happening (though the events would be confusing even with the aid of visuals). For a movie that luxuriates in the graphic details of sex, this ending is like a final flick of the lash, a last tweak of the nose. One can’t help but feel Von Trier in the position of K, meting out punishment as we arch, frustrated, towards some kind of satisfaction.

Unlike Joe, however, no orgasm awaits us.



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