‘Nymphomaniac: Volume II’: More interesting, more provocative, and more philosophical than its predecessor
Adult Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), beaten and unconscious, is found in a snow-covered alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an unassuming fellow with a gentle demeanor who takes her to his apartment. In his austere dwelling, she recounts her adventures as a young nymphomaniac in a series of stories, each preceded by director Lars von Trier’s requisite thematic chapter headings and cinematic asides. Young Joe’s (Stacy Martin) exploits, from her debut sexual experience with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), through her adventures on a train, to her very dramatic experience with a married man, his kids, and his wife (played by Uma Thurman in what might be the best 10 minutes of her career), are all captured in detail – including visual detail – which has been the talk of cinema.
And then suddenly the movie is over.
Those of us who do not require completion, particularly narrative completion, feel satisfied at the end of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, as though we’ve experienced a complete thought, whether or not all questions have been answered – the most obvious unanswered question being how Joe came to be, ass thoroughly kicked, in that alley in the first place. Unsurprisingly, given that it’s really the second half of one film, Nymphomaniac: Vol. II answers that question – and a few others – which may satisfy those who do require resolution.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II does have more interesting things to say than its predecessor, and it ups the ante on the provocative imagery and philosophical mind games, all of which is very deliberate and works a gamut of emotions, both in the character and the audience.
Joe’s sexual path: ‘From the fetishistic to the culturally taboo’
In Nymphomaniac: Vol. II Joe becomes a wife and young mother. This raises the stakes considerably for her, and forces the audience to make “judgment” adjustments as well. As Joe struggles with her sexual deviations – which are manifold – we struggle with Joe, judging her ever more harshly the further she strays from the accepted path laid out for a young woman, a young mother, a young wife. That inevitably leads to us judging ourselves for judging her, and nobody comes out looking good.
Joe’s sexuality does lead her down a number of interesting paths, from the fetishistic to the culturally taboo; for instance, there is a sequence featuring a sexual encounter with two black African men, which is a nod to both. In this scene, Lars von Trier lingers in a meticulously framed shot that shows these two men – naked and in full erection – with Charlotte Gainsbourg, a definitely white woman, naked, and positioned between them, erection height. It’s particularly funny and its point is pointed.
Joe also becomes involved in a sadomasochistic “club” of sorts, where her meetings with the sadist involves the provision of her own riding crop, which he uses to her deep satisfaction and our great disturbance. The sadist is played with cool politeness by Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot fame. Billy is all grown up and kinda freaky.
All of this is not so much shocking as it is revealing, both of the players, however naked, and of we the audience. It’s who “we” are individually and as a society that Lars von Trier is questioning – a few personal issues involving his own family revelations referred to in our review of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I notwithstanding.
‘Nymphomaniac: Volume II’: Source of ‘knowledge of worldly things’ is key philosophical point
Lastly, Nymphomaniac: Vol. II illuminates Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman – Joe’s cloistered, intellectually informed but experientially bereft host. Seligman’s philosophically salient commentary on Joe’s sexual experiences, and on her personal judgment of herself regarding her sexuality, are the result of one gaining all of their knowledge of worldly things through books rather than experience. This plot point in Nymphomaniac: Vol. II is more relevant than all the sex and nudity and deviance combined.
And then, the movie is over. Yet somehow, I don’t think it is.
Nymphomaniac Volume II (2013). Dir. & Scr.: Lars von Trier. Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Jean-Marc Barr, Mia Goth, Michael Pas, Andrea Thompson, Caroline Goodall, Kate Ashfield, Papou, Kookie Ryan.
Papou, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kookie Ryan Nymphomaniac: Volume II image: Magnolia Pictures.