Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (2013, Lars von Trier)
Previously on Nymphomaniac: Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sunset-demanding sex maniac Joe in a bad way, found splayed in an alley, discovered and taken in by a Nice Guy in love with his own endless stream of A Prairie Home Companion dialogue. She told the story of discovering her cunt, having a contest to seduce men on a train, reuniting with and losing her first lover, being confronted by a wronged wife (presumably one of many), losing her father, having a baby, practicing polyphony, and losing the ability to feel anything. This week, the exciting conclusion of Lars von Trier’s bizarre personal narrative of pleasure, sorrow and lurid self-hatred. Is it interesting and highly watchable? You bet — taken as a whole, Nymphomaniac is one of the breeziest films of such extravagant length ever made. Is it as layered with meaning and nuance as we’d all like it to be? Well, that’s up to you. It seems more likely that the writer-director is just having fun here.
As in the first half, this conclusion to the picture embodies several remarkable scenes. Broadly, the audio essays and digressions from Stellan Skarsgård continue to amuse and annoy while Joe takes us from a loss of clitoral response in her twenties (at which point she is still played by the quite remarkable Stacy Martin) to the ugly place in which we first met her a couple of decades later. For the most part, Nymphomanic is a black comedy above all else, but as ever, Trier can be counted on for some extraordinarily harrowing moments. The strongest of many highlights this time is an extremely uncomfortable sequence involving a loan-sharking Joe’s uncloseting of a tied-up pedophile; attempting to find his weakness, she rattles off every Literotica sex fantasy she can think of before finally hitting on the one that, against his wishes and tears, gives him a hard-on — a graphic narrative about a little boy. It is, to put it mildly, a difficult thing to sit through but also dramatically about as brilliant and complex as any scene this director has ever shot. Nearly as thought-provoking (or, depending on your attitudes, simply blankly provocative) is Joe’s unexpected response to this revelation.
Trier’s construction of Joe as a character has some contrived machinations but it also is a surprisingly fair investigation of someone whose behavior and thoughts constitute a personification of the darkest, dirtiest thoughts of many of us. It’s certain that this includes Trier himself. One reason the inner workings of Joe seem a little too organized, perhaps, is how the entire film is structured in chapters. That’s true of most Lars von Trier movies and always has been, but since each highlights a specific aspect of Joe’s history and personality, it does have the effect of feeling like this is an act of explication more than narrative. Nonetheless, that is explication achieved through what’s essentially a collection of fascinating, gripping short films — some of them great. It’s hard not to look upon the result as a major achivement even if it seems its whole is less than its sum.
In Vol. 2, the most inspired, bold and uncompromising “chapter” is that graphically involving Joe’s delving into BDSM. As shot with an eye to both the menace implied to a large part of society by sadomasochism but also with a keen awareness of its inherent eroticism — a tightrope he walks brilliantly throughout both films, as does his cast — it’s his uniquely emotional, mysterious, puzzling and extensively detailed chronicle of a meet-cute between Joe and a basement-dwelling male dom whose harsh work upon her draws blood under the harsh lights of a room as sparse and bright as the hotel room at the end of 2001 and results in, at last, an orgasm. Joe’s actions herein should by all logic inspire our ire, as she expects, yet her base nature is still too clear and comprehensible to sacrifice our sympathies. (And there’s even a clever Antichrist reference, suggesting that not even Trier is taking any of this as seriously as his reputation implies.)
Making liberal use of narrative techniques that seem to belong to 19th century literature (or to Wes Anderson if his moods were about 5,000 times more warped), Trier mostly just reasserts himself as a master of telling an absorbing story very methodically — and here he isn’t telling just one but several, to the film’s benefit and detriment. The last forty-five minutes that sink Joe into a crime underworld are so rich they feel downright rushed, giving us an engrossing plot that could have been expanded to feature length all by itself. Otherwise, there’s nothing here quite as mesmerizing as the Uma Thurman cameo or the train competition in Vol. 1 and there’s a good bit less deadpan humor, but the punchline is great — underlining simultaneously the bitter cynicism you likely expected when the film started, but also letting Joe have her redemption in a strange way: she can’t change her nature, and ultimately maybe that’s all right.
Honestly, it feels wasteful to have to “compare” the two parts. It makes very little sense for them to have been split in the first place. Nymphomaniac as a whole is a clever, funny and bizarre enterprise well in keeping with this filmmaker’s taste for fringe humanity and perverse experimentation. That it isn’t particularly sexy is possibly its greatest achievement. I still lament that this whole project, good as it is, seems a step backward from the genuinely devastating emotional turmoil of Antichrist and Melancholia, but it’s great anyway to see the director — one of the brightest in the world today — in such a playful mood.