Synopsis: Nymphomaniac: Volume 2 continues with the story of the self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her adulthood, during which her journey of self-discovery leads complications. The film stars Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth and Jean-Marc Barr in addition to Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin and Shia LaBeouf.
eyelights: its performances. its narrative structure. its socio-political discourse.
eyesores: its indulgences. its finale.
“There’s nothing sexual about me.”
I’ve long had mixed feelings about Lars Von Trier. While he generally makes movies that are unforgettable in one way or another, he also has a tendency for indulging in the controversial, as though he pushes people’s buttons strictly for the sake of doing so – perhaps even to attract attention to his films.
Obviously, he wouldn’t be the first.
But it’s usually the mark of less talented filmmakers. And it reduces the impact of his work: it imbues it with a cheapness or crassness that it doesn’t deserve. After all, if the work is potent enough, there’s no need to contrive controversy; if anything, doing so feels like a desperate move at best.
Already, calling your movie ‘Nymphomaniac’ guarantees attention. Casting it with well-known names, ensures that it will get publicity. Including a large amount of explicit sex scenes multiplies the amount of interest that it generates. But making the sex as extreme as possible contextually is total overkill.
It really makes it seem like the mark of a desperate filmmaker.
To me, it seems as though Von Trier had a lot he wanted to say, and he used sex to draw an audience: he figured that no one would want to listen to his diatribes on love, lust, morality, religion, abortion, …etc., so he dangled a huge lot of lurid candy (semen-covered chocolate seems fitting) at it.
After all, how does one explain that this picture, which is so dialogue-heavy that it could have been a play, has any sex in it at all? When you think about it, the core of the picture is Joe’s journey through her nymphomania – but it’s all recollection, requiring no imagery to tell its story.
In fact, if you add all the sociopolitical discourse, one could easily conclude that Joe’s journey is really just an excuse for tackling the subjects that were on Von Trier’s mind – it’s not about Joe at all. So, really, Joe’s life is a vehicle for his musings, and the sex is a reflection of her life.
But the same story could have been told without it.
The graphic imagery is gratuitous. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed much of it, as many sexual beings would – but it was expendable. Von Trier purposely showed us more than was necessary, not just in quantity, but also in its explicitness, using angles and close-ups so that we wouldn’t miss a damned thing.
Both volumes of ‘Nymphomaniac’ are explicit enough to compete with some porn films. But it’s not porn. What makes porn is its central purpose of titillating the audience above all else. ‘Nymphomaniac’ is explicit, but it’s not necessarily sexy; it often proposes contexts which are counter to that.
This second volume has even less sex than the first and it’s even less sexy. At this juncture, Joe has lost all sexual sensation and is struggling to reclaim he sexuality. So she subjects herself to all sorts of experiences that she normally wouldn’t – and it’s frequently uncomfortable if not disquieting.
The worst for me comes when she decides to enlist the help of a sadist to hurt her. As someone utterly disinterested in any form of BDSM, this was a put off – especially when we were forced to watch the brutal violence inflicted upon her. The guy doesn’t just bruise her, he tears her up.
Yuck. Not sexy.
The thing is, this part of her journey was hard to swallow not just for its content but because it felt wholly unjustified: we don’t understand why she made the leap from asexuality to wanting pain. Why didn’t she seek therapy first? We don’t know, which makes the S&M seem utterly indulgent.
The one thing I did like about this scene, was the character of K, the sadist. Played by Jamie Bell, K is an interesting personage: confident, methodical, controlling, a true perfectionist – and yet, he has a difficult time making eye contact with his many clients and hugs himself as though insecure.
Watching him set the stage was truly impressive.
There’s also another leap that doesn’t quite make sense, and it’s towards the end, when Joe decides to turn to crime to pay her bills. It seemed like a radical departure, and we don’t really understand how she made her contact and how that person knew her already. What information were we missing here?
This leads to the least likely part of the whole story, which is Jerome’s return in Joe’s life, upending everything she’s so carefully set up and taking us to the alleyway in which we’d found her initially. The whole ending is dubious at best, including the final few moments of the picture, which were a joke.
If not a cruel one.
Really, this time, more than in the last film, the meat of the picture are the dialogues between Joe and Seligman, as they discuss at length their views about many controversial subjects. In particular, there are some really interesting exchanges about abortion leading to discussing freedom of expression.
However, Von Trier yet again indulged in visceral grotesquery, showing us Joe attempting an abortion by herself. Though it’s not something taboo or that shouldn’t be discussed, he really put it in our faces, making it visually traumatic instead of emotionally so; after all, we are observers, not participants.
And that’s probably ‘Nymphomaniac’s biggest problem. Its explicit nature isn’t an issue for me, but I think that it should have been shown from Joe’s perspective for it to be essential, of us to get into her skin. Instead, we are set-up as voyeurs, creating a natural distance between us and our protagonist.
For us to truly understand Joe, it would have been necessary to see her life through her eyes.
To feel it with her skin.
Further adding to the feeling of remove is the weak transition between the actresses playing her. Though Stacy Martin was an okay choice, she doesn’t look much like Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays the present-day Joe. So when a mere three years pass and Von Trier swapped actresses it wasn’t convincing.
Of course, it didn’t help that Shia LeBeouf, who played Jerome, didn’t age in those three years. It makes the shift far too difficult to accept. In the picture’s final moments, Michaël Pas replaces him but, by then, it’s too late. At least the transition should have been made with both actors at once.
There are other discrepancies along the way, like the anachronisms that showed up in the first film. For instance, though the time period isn’t properly established, we now find cordless phones being used. Last thing we knew it was the ’70s. So what gives? When does this film take place?
Finally, there’s the picture’s length which, in the director’s preferred cut, is nearly an hour longer than the original theatrical version – at nearly three hours in length. It’s not just self-indulgent, it’s a bit overwhelming – especially given the context and the heaviness some of its discourse.
Seriously, the picture ends with Joe and Seligman watching a sunrise – and, if you watch both extended director’s cuts back-to-back late at night, in some areas you could watch the sunrise with the pair. While that’s an amusing idea from a purely conceptual standpoint it says a lot about the film.
Now, that’s not to say that the picture is merely a chore with no respite in sight.
In fact, there are a few veritably amusing moments, including one in which Jerome dares Joe to put a spoon in her vagina while they’re a posh restaurant and she ups the ante by taking a bunch of them. And, when they leave after their meal, she walks away tinkling as the spoons drop out one by one.
Or when Joe decides to hire an interpreter to solicit an African man who can’t speak English. When she later meets him at a cheap hotel, he’s in the middle of a heated argument with one of his friend, which they continue as they strip her, prod her and even as they break from DP-ing her.
All while she looks on, bewildered. Ha.
But it’s not enough to compensate for the sheer length and heaviness of ‘Nymphomania, vol. 2’. It’s not at all a bad film, but it’s less consistent than its predecessor – though it’s also certainly meatier. It leaves one wondering mildly dissatisfied with having had to sit through three hours of it.
Ultimately, the big question is, why isn’t this a play? Or why wasn’t it developed as a 10 or 11-part mini-series, one for each chapter plus the bookends? There’s too much going on, there’s too much it’s trying to say and it doesn’t all come together neatly. Moderation would have been best.
Though there’s little moderation in nymphomania, is there?
Date of viewing: March 5, 2017