When I last spent time with Lars von Trier, his tawdry, sexually vicious film, Nymphomaniac Volume I, didn’t live up to its hype. Rather, it was a semi-provocative look at female sexuality interwoven with unnecessary tangents about fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers. A collection of seductive thoughts are excavated from Volume I, but they don’t keep the film from feeling unfinished. I withheld concrete judgment until I could see Volume II, the crescendo to von Trier’s sexual symphony. Much like the results in Volume I, von Trier’s efforts in Volume II are limp and grossly miscalculated. Where the first film at least existed on some level of reality, the second half goes off the rails in ways that simply contradict, if not undermine, Volume I. Von Trier simply can’t resist going the absurd route, especially when the ending he has planned isn’t nearly as shocking as he seems to think it is.
The downfall of Nymphomaniac as one piece begins in a startling manner, where Young Joe (a deeply committed Stacy Martin) loses sensation in her vagina. In an intense opening scene, she assaults her genitalia with a towel, hoping she can physically reignite the gratifying sensation she yearns for. Joe’s malfunctioning sexual equipment places a strain on her eventual marriage to Jerome (Shia Labeouf), which forces her to explore other sexual avenues to acquire her missing mojo. As time quickly passes, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), now older and distraught, aggressively seeks out questionable sexual interactions. Joe finds a path to sexual resurrection in the form of K (Jamie Bell), a man who fulfills women’s sexual desires through physical destruction. Mutilation inevitably inspires Joe in a myriad of ways, but the final path she walks down is too bombastic for its own good, as the film’s final half overpowers the quiet observations von Trier has made in Volume I and earlier in Volume II. The ending itself is a journey in poor judgment, even if its broader point holds some significance.
Unfortunately, Nymphomaniac Volume II finds von Trier indulging in his guilty pleasures, embracing the darkest, most pointless recesses of his mind. One such example resides in a scene where older Joe inadvertently inserts herself into a threesome with two men. Instead of being an insightful scene into the increasing desperation of Joe’s sexual adventures, von Trier plays it for laughs as he keeps his camera perfectly in line with two penises dangling freely. Admittedly, the scene is comical, but it’s completely superfluous in the grand scheme. The only segment in the film where von Trier perfectly marries provocative situations with heady ideas are Joe’s interactions with the sadomasochistic K. The scenes are unnerving, thoughtful, and strangely erotic, and they are wonderful showcases for the acting talent of Jamie Bell and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
And to a great degree, von Trier bolsters his narrative device by fleshing out his active listener, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who opens up about his past when he’s not attentively dissecting Joe’s sexual opus. Joe’s and Seligman’s conversations feel more nuanced than they do in Volume I, offering us worthwhile and introspective reprieves from Joe’s story. But more layers and startling segments can’t bridge the gap between Volume I and Volume II, forcing one to wonder what von Trier is truly saying about sexuality, especially when told from a woman’s perspective. Even more to the point, Joe’s increasing hunger for sexual gratification obviously needs to yield dire consequences, but von Trier becomes increasingly more and more concerned with taboo events than he does in crafting scenarios that feel like natural extensions of Joe’s story. Gone is the genuine, if not slightly disturbed characters, established in Volume I. Von Trier butchers them, exposing not their flaws but his as a filmmaker.