Now on the beaten path.
(Warning: ‘Volume I’ spoilers immediately ahead.)
Last we left Joe, she had just been broken down with the tragic realization that she couldn’t feel anything. Her years of sexual escapades and experimentation had left her suddenly numb, cold, distant, and depressed…and this is the new Joe that we get to follow in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume II, the second half of his sexual cinematic odyssey. Needless to say, this sequel of sorts doesn’t live up to the emotional gravitas and observational humor of Volume I, instead settling for a few interesting thoughts but mostly von Trier’s penchant for gratuitous sexual violence and plenty of shock value.
Charlotte Gainsbourg takes up most of the screen time as Joe, with younger Joe actress Stacy Martin unfortunately taking a backseat – appearing in only a few scenes (good ones). Newly depressed and searching for a remedy amidst obligations to an unwanted family she has become a part of, Joe seeks help (or release) from various channels, including a professional sadist (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot — weird to think about that now), a debt collector (Willem Dafoe, Antichrist), a support group, and a handful of other uncommon sexual experiences. Or perhaps von Trier is trying to point out that these avenues are not too uncommon. Who knows. Anyway, Joe is once again recounting her tale to the gradually sulking Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), who is continually trying his best to comfort her and also win her mind over with his analogies and insight into biblical references, music, and an overabundance of kindheartedness. Although his input serves up some worthy digressions, they don’t come close to matching those from Volume I. This is actually, quite humorously, pointed out by Joe mid-film. How very meta.
If you had some issues watching the whipping scenes in The Passion of the Christ or 12 Years a Slave, then Nymphomaniac: Vol II may not be for you. I really do hate to draw the comparisons due to the extremely different contexts between all three films, but if you don’t have the stomach for it, then you just don’t have the stomach for it. I, personally, am able to reluctantly get through the scenes but not without wincing and also accepting the fact that I’ll never be able to strike these images from my memory. Von Trier doesn’t cut away. He shows everything and it’s disturbing. On the flip side, he could be using Volume II as a platform for exposure. Shame vs. pride (or acceptance) is a common thread in this second installment, and the plot takes direct aim at exposing social norms, expectations, and taboos for what they seem to be — social fabrications. On these points, Volume II makes some very compelling arguments that nearly everyone will be very one-sided about, whether in agreement or disagreement. It’s nice to have films come along that spark worthy debates (keep it peaceful, everyone), but in this case, the superfluous graphic nature of the cinematography and editing jobs weren’t necessary to get the point across and they spoil much of the film’s subtle impact.
Nymphomaniac: Volume II leaves us with a slightly bitter taste and even a stirring desire to re-watch Volume I to “cleanse” our palate. I’d find it hard to believe that watching the two together would change my reaction. I’d probably say, “well I thought the first half of the film was great, but the second half lost me quite a bit.” The final moments of Volume II are confusing and troublesome, although they do serve as a symbolic finishing touch to the “Depression Trilogy,” capturing the futile nature of our most valiant, revolutionary, or life-affirming efforts in just a few moments. But it’s over now. Fingers crossed for a “Happy Trilogy.”
Nymphomaniac: Volume II opens in select Bay Area theaters April 4, 2014.