At the center of Nymph()maniac: Volume II is the interplay of sex and cruelty, love and pain. While masochism becomes the well from which the protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), draws pleasure from middle age, it’s the people whom she loves or trusts that hurt her most. Likewise, it’s only those whom she’s closest to that she ever seeks to wound.
In the second part of his graphic, meandering epic, director Lars von Trier doesn’t drift away from the structure of Volume I, which opened at the Lagoon Cinema last month. As such, the story of Joe’s sex life is still told in a conversation, in which the protagonist goes back-and-forth with a monkish scholar named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who found the 50-year-old sex addict beaten up in an alley. Cut up into chapters, the conversation between the two ends up poetically comparing Joe’s sexual development to concepts in music, religion and even fly fishing. In this second part, however, there are fewer chapters, and they contain less humor and more menace. For example, the last one is titled “The Gun.”
(Here, I should say that one shouldn’t see Volume II without watching Volume I. While seeing either is a hefty cinematic experience, they aren’t episodes as much as two parts of a single work. To watch one without the other is to sacrifice a sense of closure, even if the ending of Volume II is as quick as it is cheap.)
As a director, von Trier is best when he, like a master poet, relocates the emotional center of his work in a single move. In an instant, and often by means of some absurdity or an act of amazing cruelty, he can almost supernaturally change a film’s tone. In Volume I, he gets you used to watching the sex life of young Joe (Stacy Martin) — a girl who’s all about sex but hates the sentimentalism of romance – by framing her life as something flippant, random and often funny. But when Uma Thurman bursts into the story as a spurned wife, she injects a sadness into the film that’s so heavy it changes everything, like a terminal illness. In Volume II, von Trier repeats the shift from dark comedy to drama early on, but the dramatic depths we enter are a lot murkier.
At the heart of the second volume is Joe’s sexual midlife crisis. After having a child and living monogamously with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), Joe finds life wanting. Surprisingly, it’s Jerôme who straight-up asks his lover to see other men, so as to satisfy her cravings. This eventually leads to a reclusive sadist named K (Jamie Bell), and he’s Joe’s introduction to masochism. In the movie’s poetic dialectic, the sexual enjoyment of pain is compared to the Christianity of Western Europe, in which there’s a strong focus on Christ’s suffering on the cross. But here, Joe’s suffering (and sexual salvation) consists of her being tied down and beaten over the backside with a horse crop, among other things. Nothing in Volume I is as graphic, and these brutal lashings make you wonder about the usage of the horror movie phrase “torture porn.” Yet, Joe finds release with K, and at night leaves her son at home alone to sneak off to his lair.
A clash with Jerôme over Joe’s poor parenting is inevitable. This upends Joe’s life to the point where she is, on one hand, attending meetings with other sex addicts and, on the other, beginning a criminal enterprise with the help of L (Willem Dafoe). Eventually, Joe embraces her sexuality, as well as a rock-and-roll criminal lifestyle. She even mentors a teenage girl named P (Mia Goth) in the art of extortion, but the girl, of course, becomes entangled in Joe’s sex life. If but for a moment, she’s sort of a parent again, before P crosses paths with the one person whom Joe holds dear. As such, the love that Joe tried so hard to block out in her youth ends up biting her in the ass. Things tie up neatly in the end, but (as I said above) the finale comes off as cheap and ugly, if not obvious.
It all leaves you wondering what von Trier is doing. Is he trying to see how long he can shock us? If so, the graphic sex and torture scenes aren’t really that startling. They’re certainly awkward and uncomfortable, but they’re not unbearable. After all, we are trying to understand this woman. Who is Joe? Is she a victim of society’s gender roles? Is she a bad person? Is she von Trier’s sexual rag doll? Nymph()maniac offers some answers, but leaves us with just as many questions. Ultimately, we are left to piece together what remains of the puzzle. Looking at the individual pieces, we can gather that sex can be cruel, and love even more so.
Nymph()maniac: Volume II is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.