Nymphomaniac: Volume II Review

(3.5 STARS)

In Volume I of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, sex was used as a means of discovery and toy for manipulation. In Volume II, it’s a goddamn weapon of mass destruction. What’s arguably even more shocking than this film’s depravity and bleakness—or its copious and explicit sexual content—is von Trier’s willingness and ability to make us laugh at and through the pain onscreen. He’s playing with form in similar ways as he did in Volume I, and he even pokes fun at what he established formally and story-wise in this film’s preceding two hours. It’s a great achievement that lives up to the promise of Volume I, completes that film in a satisfying way, and could even stand on its own.

Picking up exactly where Volume I left off, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is still recounting her life through sex to stranger-turned-friend Seligman (Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd). She’s at a point in her story where she’s lost her ability to orgasm, which puts intense strain on young Joe’s (Stacy Martin) relationship with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Despite the fact that the two now have a child together, he encourages her to find satisfaction from other sources. She explores the deeper recesses of her sexuality, including a for-hire sexual sadist known as K (Jamie Bell).

I’ll leave the details of the final act for you to discover, but it goes to some even darker places and involves Joe working as the world’s most unique debt collector and molding a lonely young woman, P (Mia Goth), in her likeness. Seligman thinks it’s sweet, but as Joe tells him, he’s very much missing the point.

To the extent Volume I succeeded, it was on the strength of its flashbacks—Stacy Martin, Uma Thurman, and the rest of the characters interacting over time and outside of one room. Joe and Seligman’s asides disrupted any momentum the film had and felt horribly contrived to boot. Right away in Volume II, von Trier gives us a bit of meat to chew on with these two in the present tense, and regularly he pokes fun at the pretentious nature of comparing Joe’s sexual escapades to mountain climbing, classical music, and all the rest. Joe’s bluntness and Seligman’s bemused naivete play really well off each other.

The film is just as good, though, when we jump back to older Joe navigating through the addicted life. While I admired Stacy Martin’s airy performance in the first film, Charlotte Gainsbourg is on a whole other level. That she finally gets to stretch her legs is Volume II‘s greatest asset. She’s phenomenal in what nearly amounts to a one-woman show.

A few of Volume I‘s supporting players are back, including the hilariously British Shia LaBeouf, but the best of the bunch is new to this world—and new to acting altogether. Mia Goth interjects some innocence into an otherwise depraved movie, yet both she and her character are capable of turning on a dime and becoming something more complex, even frightening. It’s great work, and I’m awfully curious to see her work with von Trier again.

Again, the film’s occasionally explicit depictions of sex are the furthest thing from titillating you could possibly imagine. The up-close-and-personal nature of Manuel Alberto Claro’s camerawork coupled with the film’s drab gray composition lends and air of dirtiness and intense discomfort to the whole enterprise. To the end that Nymphomaniac is a hard, demanding watch, it’s very much in line with what von Trier does. Sure, its length is novel, but it’s not surprising to see the director of The Idiots, Antichrist, and even Melancholia churn out something like this, something so wildly its own.

Pieces can and should be written about Magnet’s bifurcation strategy, which ultimately takes away from the integrity of this mammoth motion picture. I don’t blame the studio for doing what it has to in order to make a film like this profitable. That’s its modus operandi. I look forward to the opportunity to rewatch, reconsider, and review Nymphomanic in its complete form—let’s call it Nymphomaniac: The Whole Bloody Affair for fun—one day just as I did its separate parts. For now, I’ll leave this project by saying its first part showed promise but understandably felt incomplete, while part two delivered on its predecessor’s promise in a big way and stands alone as the best film in this young year.

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