Part two of the intense Danish hypersexual epic that breaks boundaries in ways that an American film would never dare. Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 never steps wrong for me until the final scene. For a week I was still trying to figure out why von Trier decided to end it that way. Yet does it really matter if I agree or disagree with his dramatic choice? “Nymphomaniac” is a welcome smack to the face for me, or for anyone else, who has seen so many movies they know what to expect from them. I never could predict anything that was coming next in Vol. 2. I was provoked and shocked, as I knew I would be, but not in the ways I thought I would. I admit it. I see too many movies. Vol. 1 review.
Upfront let me warn you: There are many pornographic shots, but nearly all of them are flashes. I assure you it’s the intellectual content that I’m exhilarated by. To brief you, the two films together sum up a woman’s complete sexual history who has lived on the extreme acting out side. She has taken on more than a dozen men a week. She marries Jerome (Shia LeBeouf) in part two, whom flabbergasted even by his own decision, condones her promiscuity because he admits he cannot satisfy her himself. This isn’t a problem until they have a baby, and she is less committed to her child than to her sexual addiction.
Jo (Stacy Martin briefly as young Jo, Charlotte Gainsbourg as mature Jo) reaches a point where she is so numb from excessive sex that she can no longer get aroused, orgasm itself feels terminally unattainable. As a woman for whom sex is practically the sole gratification as well as a measure of life, lack of arousal terrifies her. She has an encounter with two dark African men to sandwich her who don’t speak English or Danish, and while it’s never completely consummated (the men have an argument) the foreignness of the situation and the danger of them is enough of a turn-on.
But where Vol. 2 goes from there will shock and upset most viewers, and it’s perhaps why “Nymphomaniac” will never get talked about in mainstream America with iota of serious discussion. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what it is: Jo goes to an S&M specialist (Jamie Bell) whose goal it is not to penetrate her, but to humiliate, degrade and punish her – the core act is to strap her down bent forward onto the couch while she is whipped and verbally berated. We graphically see her have vaginal secretions in the mere anticipation.
So compulsively in lust for this activity, she begs for a session while deserting her baby back home in the crib. Von Trier shoots a variation of the opening of his 2009 film “Antichrist” with the same music motif, with the baby escaping from the crib and setting afoot on the balcony. We expect the same conclusion to this scene that von Trier did with his earlier film.
The marriage is over, suffice to say, but it’s the work office superior who suggests Jo attends a sex addicts anonymous group. We think she’s going to be immediately affected by this 12-step program and change for the better. But no, von Trier fools our expectations. Jo reverts to the kind of behavior again that she was at 17-years old. It’s more than just sex, after all. She sets firebombs on automobiles for kicks, then goes to work for a shameless loan shark (Willem Dafoe), and what must be at its most despicable, begins to mentor a 17-year old girl in the art of debt collecting and eventually the pleasures of sex. There are many more sub-stories of debauchery to be had with this tale, so much excess that it’s both sad and an over-stimulating rollercoaster as a vicarious viewer. But clearly, Jo is no one to envy nor is she a role model.
In Vol. 1, Jo had already declared herself to be a bad person as shared with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), whom she shares her entire story with, making Vol. 1 and 2 a flashback story. Seligman lets her share this story so it can be her therapy, and he reassures her as it goes but… he’s also occasionally baffled by her recollections. He says, at the beginning of Vol. 2, that he has been asexual his entire life. Or maybe he just has no normal social adaptation how to engage romantically or sexually which is why he is a virgin. He is an open ear to her regardless. He is nevertheless appalled by some details, especially of one remembrance of a forced blowjob. Jo suggests the “victim” enjoyed it and was relieved.
There are estimable discussions about the Eastern and Western Church divide, there is a fanciful recall of Jo ,while masturbating, seeing the Whore of Babylon and Messalina – one of the most notorious nymphomaniacs in history – when she was 12. Jo turns out to be a fan of James Bond, as much a fan of the books by Ian Fleming as she is a fan of film. But isn’t that a surprise? We as viewers are assured that she has some kind of education and has enjoyed reading books at some point of her life for pleasure. Of all the explicit material in the film, though, all this non-sequitur talk seems to upset some viewers because it doesn’t integrate lucidly with the rest of the film’s subject. I tell you I was spellbound by it, because I was challenged to see what sticks and doesn’t stick. And intelligent material is at the end… intelligent material. I prefer random intelligent detours and digressions over perfunctory, banal material in average films.
There is a shot towards the end of the film where Jo has found the “wisest tree” and damn if von Trier actually hadn’t gone location hunting to find a tree evocative of such great wisdom. It symbolically ties powerfully to Jo’s fondness for her father, who told her a tree parable when she was young. One of the few interests Jo has had besides sex was finding beautiful trees. That’s her individuality. Don’t criticize her for it. The sight of Jo’s, and really von Trier’s tree, at the end of the film pays off. It’s beautiful.
I do think Charlotte Gainsbourg gives one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, for the complete opus. In Vol. 1, we saw her limited pretty much to bedside after she had been taken in by Seligman following a beating (she was left bleeding out on street cobblestone). Gainsbourg was riveting stillborn, simply because she is so consumed by this character and her history, and she was left to sort out her guilt and shame (and really, exhaustion of dealing with her own soul). In Vol. 2, Jo is an adult inhabited by Gainsbourg, and in flashbacks, she is compulsively driven by unwholesome things because she is looking for that next high. We are touched by Gainsbourg’s ever quivering of nerves. She’s electrifying. Don’t expect the Oscars to respect her, though.
But oh my God, it doesn’t lead to where you wanted it to, boo hoo. I am satisfied with how deliberately dissatisfied I am by von Trier’s ending. It’s like von Trier knew me personally that I was out there watching his film, and wanted to do everything he could to piss me off. Oh, I hated him for a few minutes for it, but now I’m thankful to him. Let me tell you something about myself. When I was 18-years old, at the height of my horniness, I must have fantasized an endless amount of times what it would be like to sexually pleasure a hundred females, not simultaneously but concurrently. To make them happy. To feel wanted by hundreds of desirable females that needed me specifically. My dreams were free association but torrential in effect. Then I got older and felt less of that need. I have moved way beyond that desire. I evolved. I have a wife now, and she is my oracle to focus on. Jo, however, has spent a lifetime pleasuring hundreds of males (into the thousands probably), feeling the need to please them, to be pleased by them, to be collected not by an individual but by a large sum of an accumulation of the male species. Jo needed to be desired by thousands, and thus, surrender to thousands. Some people go a lifetime just needing to be needed by just one. The human species is sexually motivated and wired to need at least one. I feel the final scene is about this pitiful fact. We are all cursed with having too much of it or not enough.
Vol. 2 is the captivating culmination of, what is combined, the greatest four-hour film I’ve ever seen. More than “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and “The Century of the Self” (2005). Oh, stop hating me. No, you stop your grandstanding for a moment. If you want the greatest desert-sand movie, it’s the Japanese film “The Woman in the Dunes” (1964), not “Lawrence.” But really, let me get back to center. “Nymphomaniac” is the most startling, most alive subject and content I’ve seen on film in years.
123 Minutes. Unrated. Adults Only. Filmed in Denmark but all in English language.
DARK DRAMA / SEX ADDICTION / WEEKEND REFLECTION MOVIE