Mark Reviews Movies

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lars von Trier

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell, Mia Goth, Willem Dafoe, Michael Pas, Christian Slater

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 4/4/14 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 3, 2014

In the winter, her father told her when she was a child, the trees show their souls. Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, the second half of writer/director Lars von Trier's four-hour story of a woman relating her memoirs as—she proudly calls herself—a nymphomaniac, documents the winter of Joe's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) life. As anyone who has faced any kind of major loss knows, that is the time in which we discover of what stuff we are made.

By the end of the Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, the younger Joe (Stacy Martin) had suffered two major losses: her father (Christian Slater) and, at the very end, her ability to achieve orgasm. That second one is itself an existential question, isn't it? What purpose can a life devoted to pursuing sexual pleasure really have if the goal becomes an impossibility? If a person scratches and scratches and scratches at an itch with no relief, does the person just stop scratching eventually or hold out hope that maybe he or she will find the right angle or amount of pressure to approach it?

Whereas the first half of the film enjoyed a certain level of frivolity in examining Joe's escapades, the second part is overcome by an incredible, insurmountable sadness. Its rebelliousness is replaced by an overriding sense of loneliness—the kind that only comes when a person has no idea of his or her place in life. In the film's present, Joe may have seen her younger self as an unforgivable soul, but at least she knew who she was.

The reason for Joe's feeling of being lost, of course, is obvious, but remember, she's not the only one in this story. There's also Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the kind stranger who gave Joe shelter at the beginning of this two-part story and from then on provides her with a sympathetic ear.  He also offers anecdotes from his own knowledge and experience in an attempt both to try to better understand Joe's tale and to give Joe a different perspective.

We've known he is a loner from the first time we see him, and when he announces that he considers himself asexual—having neither had nor desired sexual contact with anyone (save for himself when he was a teenager)—the extent of his solitude is even greater than we first imagined. Worse for him, there comes a point where he realizes his little tangents from Joe's story are not the appreciated and profound insights that he imagined them to be. "That was one of your weakest digressions so far," Joe scolds him after he tells a mystifying non sequitur about knot-tying. If Seligman was alone before, at least he was confident in his strengths; with that one comment, he becomes as without useful function as Joe.

All of this is to say that, in its second section, the film becomes a much darker and, more importantly, richer exploration of its characters and their questions of identity. The structure of the concluding volume may be more of the same, but its tone and aim are far removed from what has come before it.

Without any recap of the events in the first volume, the story continues with the younger Joe and her life of uncomfortable domestic routine with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), the man to whom she lost her virginity and who would keep showing up unexpectedly in her life. They have settled down and started a family—a son whom, as a baby, Joe is convinced can see right through her façade of motherhood and, hence, has no love for her. Joe's inability to reach climax has taken its toll on Jerôme, and he suggests that she seek out other sexual partners who might be able to fulfill her needs.

If that setup sounds familiar, it's not the last time that von Trier rips a page out of his previous work and places it into the events of this story. Later on, another scene from the director's output plays out, as an unsupervised toddler sneaks out his crib to investigate the falling snow outside as a Handel aria plays on the soundtrack. If there's one thing we have learned from von Trier's approach to this material so far, though, it's that he is willing and eager to toy with our expectations, and these callbacks solidify that.

We have also come to expect an unblinking and nonjudgmental depictions of sex in the film, and here, von Trier ventures into another taboo: sadomasochism. Thinking she might obtain some form of release in violence, Joe seeks out K (a frighteningly cold Jamie Bell), a sadist who keeps an appointment book of various women looking to take his physical and psychological abuse.

Unlike some of the graphic depictions of sex that preceded the story until this point, there is nothing erotic about either the sex or the S&M, which is as brutal as the sex is detailed, in the second half. It is founded upon far too much desperation on the part of the characters for that. Note an earlier scene in which Joe tries to have sex with a complete stranger who doesn't speak English; the result is an awkward argument between two naked men instead of what she anticipated.

The relationship between sex and violence becomes even more important in the film's final chapter, which finds Joe working for L (Willem Dafoe), a "debt collector" who really just hires out heavies to get money. Here, Joe uses her sexual experience as a form of abuse unto itself—searching out the weaknesses of her marks in order to pressure them into paying. It's little wonder the Joe of the present-day scenes sees herself the way she does considering how she uses sex as a weapon, especially in one scene where she tries to discover a man's vulnerability using his penis as a compass.

Of course, that's just her perspective, and Nymphomaniac: Vol. II continues the idea of dueling perspectives from the first part. It's summed up in a striking shot of Joe and Seligman looking out of two different windows at the same scene. Physically, they may be close together and looking at the same scene, but mentally, they are miles apart and seeing something completely different. They've also switched places in a way, but it takes one, final test (It is von Trier after all) to see how far removed they are from how we perceived them.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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