Lars von Trier’s sexual two-parter comes to an end with great violence
The last time we saw Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), she was writhing between the sheets, but in a way different than usual: The erogenous zone between her legs had become nearly insensitive, and she could no longer reach orgasm. Obviously, for the title character of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, this is as bad as it gets.
In the first volume, released Dec. 26, Joe told the story of her rampant sexuality — mostly in bed, but almost everywhere else, too — to the kind stranger Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). There was her at a young age stimulating herself by sliding face-down on the wet bathroom floor, and then hooking up with strangers on a train in a face-off with her best friend who had equally promiscuous goals. She fell in love with the boy who took her virginity and kept meeting up with him throughout her life, until he eventually became the cantus firmus in the polyphony of her sex life, as so memorably demonstrated by a three-part split screen accompanied by Bach’s “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” chorale prelude for organ.
Directed by Lars von Trier
With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell and Mia Goth
This second volume, in which the story continues, is much darker in tone than the first two hours, as it focuses on the consequences of Joe’s loss of sensation. The principal consequence is that for some reason she becomes less vigilant about using contraception and ultimately falls pregnant. At first, she takes care of her son, Marcel, but with the constant absence of her husband who travels on business, and her tumescent desire to reach orgasm once more, she embarks on an odyssey of discovery that involves sadomasochism and ducks.
We wouldn’t have put it past him, but fortunately Von Trier spares us any mention of bestiality. The ducks in questions are not quacking (an insert that provides for the biggest laugh in the film) but silent, and for those wishing to know more, you can Google “silent duck.”
It is a young man called K. (Jamie Bell) who uses the silent duck, and a number of other techniques, to inflict terrible pain on Joe that leave her body bruised and battered, and in one case, her buttocks bleeding as the flesh is torn out of them in a way that Von Trier explicitly links with the Passion of Christ.
These scenes, violent as they are, are nothing compared with the darkest part of the film, which takes place on a parallel track and cleverly uses Von Trier’s 2009 film, Antichrist. It involves Joe’s gradual isolation and rejection of family life and leads to two stomach-churning scenes with the infant Marcel. For those who saw the opening sequence of Antichrist, a comparison with the events in this film, and the relationship between Joe and Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) in particular, will be very insightful.
Those who have seen Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom are also in for a last-minute surprise, although Von Trier’s reference isn’t as solid as the one to his own film.
While it certainly wasn’t Von Trier’s intention with Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2 to make an “enjoyable” film in the conventional sense, the film isn’t as riveting as its predecessor, and it is an easy stretch of the metaphor to say the pleasure of Nymphomaniac arrived all too prematurely. The many different tangents on which the director went off in the first film were almost always surprising and often both ridiculous and thoughtful at the same time.
Here, however, Seligman loses the plot as he finds ever more obscure historical or literary counterparts to the situations and the characters in Joe’s autobiography, at one point leading her to exclaim it one of his “weakest digressions” yet. We learn a little bit more about him, but like the single scene of Joe’s work environment, the glimpse is far from satisfactory. And yet, as Von Trier did earlier in the story with his antics about the Fibonacci numbers, our patience does pay off, as the events unfolding behind a black screen toward the end of the film can be illuminated by earlier revelations of Seligman’s character.
Nymphomaniac has presented film critics in particular with the opportunity to dissect its pornographic intentions. It was a topic I briefly dealt with (and mostly rejected) in my review of the first installment of the two-part film. Vol. 2 hands us a different club to beat the director with, and this one is not only more appropriate but more brutal. It is the violence performed against women.
Click here for a clip from Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2 that is not safe for work.
Sadomasochism generally, and even in the particular case of this film where there is a mutually agreed-upon — but for the viewer an utterly distressing — absence of “safe words,” means there is consent for things to happen that would otherwise give rise to lawsuits of battery and assault. Von Trier films the instances of S&M violence committed against Joe in a way that never sensationalizes the event but maximizes our discomfort and even disgust.
In so doing, he cannot be labeled any kind of deviant or misogynist but rather a filmmaker who knows how to get us to squirm without recklessly stumbling across the very apparent ethical minefield. He manages the same feat later on when Joe faces a man whose urges would be criminal, not to mention incontestably monstrous, if acted upon, but both Joe and Von Trier neatly draw the line between victim and aggressor, in the process surprising us by revealing, in this and the previous situation, human beings behind what at first seemed to be thugs.
Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2 is quite different from the first film in terms of tone and doesn’t keep our attention as easily. Seligman speaks too much, the chapter headings become a bit contrived, and the story-within-a-story simply becomes tiring. Gainsbourg seems chronically depressed, both in the present and in her flashbacks (she takes over here from Stacy Martin, who played Young Joe in Vol. 1), and her demeanor infects our experience.
Von Trier continues to frustrate his audience with odd choices of characters and sudden narrative twists, but there is no denying his Nymphomaniac is unlike anything he or anyone else has done since the days of Dogville and Manderlay, and these are all the films of a master filmmaker.
About the Author
Hailing from the Cape Winelands in South Africa, André spent his student years at home and all over France before making the move to Prague in 2011. He has worked as a film critic and copy editor, and is a member of the renowned international association of film critics, FIPRESCI.
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