In Nymphomaniac: Vol. II Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) continue their journey through Joe’s life as if there was no intermission between this and Vol. I. It remains to be seen whether or not that is how you should ingest Lars von Trier’s latest film.
Von Trier certainly intended for Nymphomaniac to be swallowed whole. His director’s cut is reportedly five-and-a-half hours long, and is expected to see release later this year. Von Trier did not fully oppose the breaking up of the film into two parts, but he did not take part in any of the editing toward that end, which makes the fact that they work as two pieces all the more interesting. I am not suggesting that the two movies would successfully stand alone if separated by a year (like almost every novel adaptation must these days), but the movie worked for me as two doses divided by a week. Vol. II picks up where its predecessor left off, with Young Joe (Stacy Martin) unable to experience the sensation that has thusfar defined her life. This happens immediately after she is reunited with her first and greatest love Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), denying Joe the happiness she longs for.
From here Joe’s story takes some very interesting turns. Von Trier begins to move away from overtly sexy side of sex to explore darker and more depraved avenues (I know, who knew that was even possible?). This volume’s chapters cover sado-masochism, addiction counseling, and sexual humiliation, all in service of exploring how far Joe is willing to go to reclaim her lost climax. And if she does get it back, how much of herself and others will she give up in exchange?
Throughout all of this we learn much more about Seligman, as well. Von Trier makes him an even more obvious foil for Joe at this point in the narrative by revealing he is asexual in seemingly every way. It is a development that could play as contrived if handled by a lesser talent than Skarsgård, who has already put so much into the character that we are willing to go there with him.
Nymphomaniac (as a whole) succeeds because of the trust von Trier places in his actors. LaBeouf continues to deliver the best performance of his career, especially in the early scenes where he must cope with his inability to satisfy Joe. Martin gets the chance to show off in a tortured moment before clearing the way for Gainsbourg to take over, showing us how Joe matures over the years. Special bonus: does anyone play demonic as well as Willem Dafoe? I don’t think so.
The acting can’t do anything about the loss of subtlety as the film nears its end. The comparisons to Christ and the declarations of female sexual independence are so explicit that I am quite sure that von Trier meant them to be that way. Ultimately the movie ends up being about human nature, and the futility of trying to fight it.
Impulse. That is what drives Joe to do the things she does. It may also be what drove von Trier’s creation of this epic. Vol. II is a little less reliant on sex as the main action (similarly, I got distracted a little more – what does that say about my motivations behind watching the movie?), which deliberately slows the final chapter. Five-and-a-half hours sounds like an awfully long time to spend watching one film (tell that to the audience that watched THIS), but I think – after watching these two pieces – that I owe it to von Trier to watch Nymphomaniac the way he intended.