Nymphomaniac Volume II (Denmark/Germany/UK, 2013)March 27, 2014
Nymphomaniac Volume II, the continuation of the story begun by writer/director Lars von Trier in Nymphomaniac Volume I, is a clear case of a narrative running out of steam. Exhaustingly repetitive, this movie attempts many of the same things its predecessor did but with less success. What's engaging and intriguing over a two-hour span becomes tiresome by the time hours three and four arrive. Nymphomaniac Volume II doesn't offer a whole lot new or interesting; it simply takes the characters from Volume I and puts them through their paces a second time.
The most interesting "new wrinkle" here is a lengthy S&M segment. The lead character and narrator, Joe (played almost entirely by Charlotte Gainsbourg, although Stacy Martin still occasionally appears in flashbacks), ventures into the domain of a dominator portrayed by Jamie Bell. The intimate scenes between them should be mandatory viewing for anyone who swears by E.L. James. One senses Lars von Trier's interpretations of these submissive/dominant relationships isn't going to fuel many masturbatory fantasies. What's interesting, however, isn't so much the unsparing details he provides about Joe's sessions but the way in which he shows how this lifestyle becomes an all-consuming obsession for her.
Nymphomaniac Volume II continues to present Joe's autobiography as told to her benefactor, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who listens with rapt attention before occasionally breaking in with odd tangential remarks. The beginning of Volume II finds her living with her true love, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), but frustrated about her inability to achieve orgasm. This leads her to try a number of unconventional "therapies" including the aforementioned S&M, before her increasingly risky behavior results in a final breakup between her and Jerome. After that, she becomes a debt collector working with a shady Willem Dafoe and gains a protégé (Mia Goth) with whom she has hot lesbian sex. The ending of Nymphomaniac Volume II is a bit of a head-scratcher and not especially satisfying, although it does provide "closure" of a sort.
Seligman continues to be a blank canvas. We learn that he's a virgin who describes himself as "asexual" but, for the most part, he's just a convenient means by which von Trier can introduce offbeat topics like the Eastern Church/Western Church Schism and James Bond's gun. As with fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers in Volume I, these are meant to have thematic relevance but sometimes their connections to Joe's narrative are murky and difficult to follow. Von Trier never stops to explain himself, which is a good thing, but there are times when his decisions seem arbitrary.
The hardcore content of Volume II is a little more explicit than that in Volume I. The most bizarre and potentially controversial sequence focuses on Joe's involvement in a threesome with two well-endowed black men. Von Trier uses shot selection in this scene to make a statement about stereotypes and taboos. This is true of many of the "porn inserts" - on the surface, they seem gratuitous and unnecessary but von Trier likely sees them as indispensable. (It's worth noting that the extended director's cut of Nymphomaniac supposedly includes a lot of hardcore material.)
Whereas Stacy Martin was front-and-center as Joe through most of Volume I, she only appears in a few scenes in Volume II. With the story moving closer to the "present," Charlotte Gainsbourg assumes the role. For whatever reason, this creates a distance between the audience and the character. It was easier to relate to Martin's Joe. Gainsbourg's Joe seems like a completely different person than Martin's - colder and more closed-off. I was less invested in Joe during Volume II than during Volume I.
Nymphomaniac Volume II has value for those who watched (and didn't hate) Volume I. It continues Joe's story in typical von Trier fashion (in other words, with shades of the director's expected pretentiousness) but lacks the compulsive watchability of its predecessor. Those who didn't see Volume I need not bother. This doesn't work as a stand-alone film. It's unfortunate that, after a strong beginning, von Trier is unable to sustain the movie's strengths throughout the entirety of the story. Combined, Volumes I and II offer an intriguing character study that features a few too many self-indulgent tangents and loses its way as it stumbles toward its conclusion.
Nymphomaniac Volume II (Denmark/Germany/UK, 2013)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro