Film Review: Nymph()omaniac, Vol. 2

The romance is gone in the second half of Lars von Trier's erotic opus, which leaves pleasure behind for a prolonged immersion in pain.

When we last saw Joe—the self-diagnosed nymphomaniac at the center of Lars von Trier's two-part, five-hour, strange, erotic journey from adolescence to adulthood—she had arrived at the apex of her sexual peak, having reconnected with the person who, in a sense, functioned as the love of her life: Jerôme, the boy who took the first bite of the proverbial apple roughly a decade ago and has flitted in and out of her carnal exploits ever since. Unlike the rest of her many, many lovers, Jerôme inspired feelings of contentment, as well as lust. It was the closest she had come to experiencing domestic bliss…so of course Von Trier was going to ensure that it was all going to be downhill for his heroine from there.

As Vol. 1 drew to a close, a despondent Joe (played then by Stacy Martin, who appears in the first few minutes of this installment before Charlotte Gainsbourg takes over full-time) wailed, "I can't feel anything!" while in mid-coitus with her lover, and the echo of that primal scream carries over into Vol. 2, which finds her subjecting her body and mind (but mainly her body) to all manner of abuse in pursuit of even the smallest sensation of pleasure. It goes without saying that her relationship with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf, who ages out of the movie when Martin does) is effectively over despite the fact that they have a child together and are thus trying, not at all successfully, to function as an "ordinary family" might. Von Trier has long been a deep skeptic, if not an outright cynic, of happily-ever-after coupledom and that's present once again in the parody of domesticity that Joe and Jerôme live out before consciously uncoupling for good. (It says something that the healthiest, happiest marriage glimpsed in a von Trier film is probably the one that Emma Watson and Stellan Skarsgård shared in Breaking the Waves.)

During her soon-to-be ex's frequent absences, Joe explores other avenues for sexual stimulation, including a spontaneous three-way with a pair of African immigrants—which quickly goes awry when the two men disagree over which position the other is supposed to be in (the comical nature of this scene is underlined by von Trier's amusingly juvenile decision to frame Gainsbourg between her bickering bedmates' cocks)—as well as a prolonged audition to be among the regular clients (the rest of whom also appear to be bored housewives) of a handsome sadomasochist (Jamie Bell). The latter's extreme demands of her all but hijack her life, costing her custody of her son and leaving lingering mental and physical scars.

Having been on the receiving end of so much pain, Joe decides to start dishing it out, embarking on a successful career as an enforcer for a local gangster (Willem Dafoe), torturing his debtors so they'll cough up what they owe. It's this career path that eventually deposits her bruised body in the same alleyway where quiet shut-in Seligman (Skarsgård) finds her in the opening scene of Vol. 1 and brings her back to his apartment for a lengthy Q&A session, establishing the framing device that here resolves itself in appropriately apocalyptic fashion.

Those who (erroneously) complained about the lack of erotic heat in Vol. 1 perhaps have more of a leg to stand on in Vol. 2, where the explicitness is mostly reserved for graphic, mostly unpleasant acts of violence rather than graphic, mostly pleasant sex. Where Joe's formative experiences as a young nympho were tinged with hope and even happiness, her adulthood is marked by despair and depression precipitated by her own emotional turmoil as well as society's judgment of her, glimpsed in Jerôme's dismissive treatment, as well as the condescending attitude displayed by the counselor of a sex-addicts group she's forced to join by her pre-crime career employer. As Seligman handily describers her situation, if she were a man, her long list of conquests would win her a badge of honor rather than a scarlet letter. Because of her sex, though, she's not supposed to enjoy…well, sex as much as she does or, considering her current circumstances, did.

Seligman's ruminations, along with Joe's general suffering, place the second volume of Nymphomaniac squarely in the tradition of von Trier's "A woman scorned" tales, alongside Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. And while it lacks the formal innovation of those two films (as well as some of the more fanciful creative choices made in Vol. 1, such as the switch to black-and-white cinematography for a key sequence), it's carried along by Gainsbourg's impassioned performance, which zeroes in on the emotional beats that exist beneath the deliberately mannered dialogue and button-pushing violence. She's the first actress to star in multiple von Trier films and seems invigorated, rather than wearied, by the process of being directed by him. Taken together, both volumes of Nymphomaniac fulfill the same function for von Trier and Gainsbourg that the plus-sized Wolf of Wall Street served for Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio: the epic culmination of a rich, productive, multi-year, multi-movie collaboration.

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