Click here for a review of Nymphomaniac: Volume I
The more dubious aspects of the two-part, four-hour Nymphomaniac, such as its tenuous relation to any reality outside of Lars von Trier’s feverish imagination, are far more pronounced in Volume II. The present-day Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her face gradually becoming less swollen, brings Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) up to date on how she came to be lying in the alley where he found her.
A few minutes in, Gainsbourg takes over the role of Joe in the flashbacks: the now 30-ish Joe is up to 10 sexual encounters a day. Her rather peaked-looking lover Jerome (Shia LaBoeuf) has long since realized he can’t meet her insatiable demand, so he generously agrees to look the other way about her many liaisons.
An on-screen title “The Dangerous Men” introduces the story of Joe’s attempted tryst with an African immigrant: one day Joe spots him standing on a street corner with other immigrant day laborers, and she hires a translator to relay her proposition. The African man brings a buddy along to the designated hotel room, and without any introductions everyone strips down. But the lowest of comedy ensues when the two African men start arguing over who gets which of Joe’s orifices. (Joe doesn’t understand a word they’re saying, and no subtitles are provided for the viewer.)
As their argument grows heated, von Trier has the camera repeatedly dip below the waistline to take in the spectacle of the men’s erections; Joe hastily dons her clothes and slips out the door. Going over this incident with Seligman, Joe declares, “I can assure you, women who say that Negroes don’t turn them on are lying.”
Does any of this rub you the wrong way? The depiction of the two Africans (“the dangerous men”) as anonymous, ‘exotic,’ and wholly sexualized? I’m not sure whether von Trier would like for the audience to be outraged, or to join him in chortling at the very notion of political correctness.
The most damning aspect of the scene is the way von Trier is playing catch-up with fellow middle-aged bad-boy auteur Ulrich Seidl here. Seidl’s Paradise: Love (2012) follows a 50-ish Austrian tourist looking for Liebe in all the wrong places on a trip to Kenya; the climactic set piece is a long ordeal of a scene, demeaning for everyone involved, where she and a few other older Austrian women ogle and fondle a Kenyan member of the hotel staff, who beams and flaunts his erect member for the camera.
No doubt there are critics who will find some merit to the way Seidl and von Trier smash the boundaries of good taste in these scenes: exposing the cluelessness or racism that underlies their fellow Europeans’ sexual fantasies, perhaps, or maybe just shattering taboos for the hell of it? But paying a nonprofessional actor to bare all for the camera seems like the cheapest of shock tactics. In its own way, it also feels kind of predictable. If these scenes make you uncomfortable or strike you as ethically questionable, what do you bet that Seidl and von Trier relish your discomfort?
If you aren’t bothered by “the dangerous men,” von Trier has another jolt to your soft bourgie existence in store. In the next chapter of Volume II, the 30-something Joe has lost all sensation in her privates; her genitals, it would seem, need a break. Out of desperation she seeks the services of a commanding S&M specialist named K (Jamie Bell) who refers to her as “Fido.” K lays into Joe with a riding crop, giving her 12 lashes, and no way is von Trier going to cut away or otherwise spare the audience having to watch all 12 blows.
Joe is hooked. She’s so worked up for a later appointment with K that when her baby-sitter is a no-show, she leaves her toddler son alone in the flat to keep her rendezvous. As if to test the audience’s sympathy for Joe, von Trier teases us with the possibility that her child is going to tumble off the apartment balcony (recycling the opening of Antichrist) while Joe is off getting her butt whipped. This time K administers 40 lashes, and the makeup department spares no effort in showing us what a woman’s buttocks look like after receiving 40 lashes.
Joe is undaunted. Even after having to give up her son, she declares, “I love my cunt and my filthy dirty lust.” Nearing middle age, alone, almost unemployable, she embraces her outcast-freak status. Eventually the only job she can get is by working as an enforcer for a suavely reptilian debt collector named L (Willem Dafoe), who’s well aware of Joe’s reputation.
Dafoe’s appearance in Nymphomaniac: Volume II is a glittering cameo to place alongside Uma Thurman’s in Volume I, and the movie straightens up when he and Charlotte Gainsbourg are sitting across a desk from each other. (Gainsbourg retains her poise throughout, no mean feat in these circumstances.) But the narrative’s detour into crime feels like an awkward fit, and a bit of a comedown. The try-anything spirit of intellectual inquiry that defines Volume I, which at least felt novel, dissipates here as melodrama creeps into the proceedings.
Eventually Joe has a same-sex relationship, albeit with the least appropriate female in her orbit. If Nymphomaniac, divided into chapters as it is, has often suggested an erotic novel where each chapter caters to a different fetish, it’s also characteristic of how unlike porn the movie is that the lesbian sex is held back for so long.
As the flashbacks draw to a close, even Joe, who for so much of her life has kept love and sex strictly segregated, feels the sting of betrayal from a sexual partner. In the present day, having concluded her reminiscences, Joe and Seligman reach a point of understanding — or so it seems. Von Trier will not end on a note of empathy; he would prefer to unsettle the audience with a couple last-minute jabs.
Perusing the reviews and message boards for Nymphomaniac, it’s surprising to see how many viewers hail the film as striking a blow for sexual liberation, and women’s sexual empowerment in particular. (One commenter posts on IMDB that only Americans object to the movie, which I thought was funny.) This sexual-liberation argument struck me as wishful thinking. You have to overlook how von Trier insists on debasing his female protagonist throughout the grueling four-hour narrative, and unlike Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) in Breaking the Waves, no exalted status is waiting for Joe at the end of her road of excess.
SPOILER ALERT. Here nymphomania is equated with being a sociopath. The middle-aged Joe ends up lying broken and bloody in a rainy alley, friendless and unloved, virtually a martyr to her sexual desires. Her trajectory is like something out of a Jack T. Chick comic; all that’s missing is a final panel of Joe engulfed in a sea of hellfire. Anyone drawn to Nymphomaniac by the series of movie posters — a head shot of each cast member climaxing (see below) — is being misled, because any sense of ecstatic release is notably absent from these movies.
That might be what’s most disappointing about Nymphomaniac. The dry, dreary, almost punitive vibe of the four hours is all too typical of 21st-century indie cinema. Does pleasure always have to be viewed with suspicion? At times I felt like I was watching an illustrated philosophical tract that could be called Against Sensuality.
And I wondered what Nymphomaniac would have been like in the hands of another filmmaker: Abdellatif Kechiche, say, or perhaps Paolo Sorrentino of The Great Beauty. A Sorrentino take on this story might hit a wider, less predictable set of notes. It might ease up on the misanthropy and let the characters have a good time, without ignoring the discontents or regrets of a life built around hedonism. The Lars von Trier Nymphomaniac too often feels like the work of an aging sh(l)ockmeister determined to get a rise out of his audience by pushing any button he can.