Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s raw and probing Nymphomaniac: Volume II is the continuation of one lost woman’s downward spiral into the aimless sexual landscape of confusion, desperation and despair. As in Volume I, von Trier establishes the beginning psychological trajectory of a disheveled and destitute Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) found in the nearby alleyway by a compassionate and intellectual middle-aged bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who generously escorts her back to his place as she details her rambunctious history of sexual encounters with him. Joe, a self-confessed nymphomaniac, finds it reassuring to trace her sexual deeds back to her complicated childhood until present-day womanhood as she describes her descent into carnal mayhem. So the premise is staged as the out-of-control promiscuous Joe has a one-man audience in non-judgmental Seligman as she asserts her sexual deviant behavior and foreign feelings for true love and affection as a justification for her being “a very bad person”.
Clearly, von Trier’s arousing examination of his lusty leading lady in Gainsbourg’s Joe is an arduous attempt to construct the complications of an immense angst-ridden feminine sexual stronghold. Sure, von Trier has never been a filmmaker to balk at pushing the envelope in his challenging narratives and obviously Nymphomaniac: Volume II (as with Volume I) looks to tap dance into the generalities of sexual disdain rich in decadence and discontentment. The themes of sexual perversion, curiosity and experimentation almost gives von Trier’s sordid stories some convincing measurement of off-balance innovation and introspection. At the heart of Nymphomaniac: Volume II is the underbelly of outrage, sadness, self-discovery and self-hatred. The brutality and stylistic cynicism that von Trier incorporates in Nymphomaniac: Volume II is unapologetic and guiltless. In short, von Trier has always shown a sense of rebellion and ribaldry with his earlier films such as Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves so the stark depictions in his Nymphomaniac enterprise should not be anything surprising in content.
As disturbing and disruptive that Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II can be in its seductive and sadistic skin, the payoff is warranted by the fearless and ferocious performances anchored by both Gainsbourg and Skarsgard. Whereas Volume I concentrates on the hormonal coming-of-age craziness that befalls the child/adolescent/teenage/collegiate Joe we see that inVolume II the brutal brushes with her demanding sexuality approaches an outrageous level of extreme masochism bordering on the lines of destructive outlandishness. Joe’s appetite for carnal chaos and equal self-inflicting torture towards her self-worth is quite revealing. As much as Joe embraces her demons as a twitchy slut-for-hire, the patience and articulation of attentive listener Seligman reminds her that she still is important within the scheme of her treacherous sexual trysts. Remarkably, Seligman is able to draw out the artistic vibes from this troubled woman through his thorough appreciation for the sophisticated arts and literature.
Joe constantly harps on the shame and disgust of her imprisoned persona as a nymphomaniac shell-of-a-woman not realizing her redeeming qualities as her meaningless sexual conquests is nothing more than a protective shield that fences in her insecurities and uncertainties. Tellingly, Joe’s over-the-top sexual fixations is not just a psychological release of inner frustration-it is a serious cry for hidden emotional and mental incompleteness. Sadly, Joe cannot feel anything painful on a personalized basis and the masking of using her body as an instrument for immediate titillating pleasure to drown the suffocating pain pretty much seals the deal in how Joe compensates for her inadequacies as a fulfilled human being.
Instinctively, von Trier never eases up on the vulnerability of the pillow-talking vixen. After all, Joe is rough around the edges and will in no way, shape or form be mistaken for a spoiled debutante anytime soon. She is crass but understandably hypnotic behind closed bedroom doors because it is her curvy thin and sensual milky body that entrances the hoards of men that find her the agreeable cure for their own sexual obsessions. No doubt that Joe’s edgy sexual adventures are oddly compelling and corrosive in nature. The peculiar code that Joe swears by is rather unique because she lives by her own set of rules for her sexual recklessness-she insists on sexually satisfying scores of different men without repeating the thought of bedding them down more than once (she actually broke her ground rules once by attaching herself to a married man with children thus creating the wrath of the guy’s angered wife as played by Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction fame).
Shockingly, Joe knows no restrictive bounds. The mischievous von Trier puts his sex-starved sass through the binding ropes as he saddles her in in a variety of tawdry predicaments-a hotel room threesome with a pair of foreign-speaking muscular African siblings for instance. The X-rated festivities does not stop there as von Trier revisits such sexual “playfulness” as bisexuality, S&M, masturbation, bodily fluids, bondage, interracial hook-ups, teen sex, etc. How Seligman can sit there and marvel at what this wounded woman throws at him in a matter-of-fact manner is astonishing in its own right. To von Trier’s credit, Seligman represents the “safe and sane” man not corruptible to her chilly charms-he is the rare salvation of a solid man not wanting her used slinky body for anything but needed company to break his prison of loneliness.
One can certainly compare and contrast the suggestive nature of Nymphomaniac: Volume II as it breathes more of the seediness and undeniable outcry than what was presented in the seemingly calming Volume I. It is amazing how much von Trier has devised such sizzling and taboo-ridden cinema and turned it into an unlikely commentary on feminism and sexuality. Again, both Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II may seem rather pat and passe to those that digest hardcore pornographic romps with regularity or indifference. Still for mainstream cinema the 4-hour long Nymphomaniac showdown is more than just an opportunity for von Trier to deliver a big screen cheap thrill for the sake of exaggerated shock value. In essence, he has crafted an unflinching female empowering spotlight into an unpredictable territory of erratic behavior that is more commonplace than what any of us is willing to admit.
Nymphomaniac: Volume 2 (2014)
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier
2 hrs. 4 mins.
CRITIC’S RATING: *** stars (out of 4 stars)