Now we arrive at “Nymphomaniac: Vol. II”, the second part of Lars von Trier’s another challenging work to talk and discuss about. As its exhausted heroine warned us previously, this is a darker territory compared to its first part which was relatively playful at times despite its uncomfortable subject. While the conversation between her and a man intrigued by her wild, tormented sex life is continued as before, we finally see how she went through downward spiral and then eventually hit the bottom, and that is certainly not a very cheerful sight to observe – and we are less amused here as a consequence.
As described in “Nymphomaniac Vol. I”, young Joe(Stacy Martin) had sex with many men as boldly pursuing the orgasm she experienced for the first time when she was just a little girl. At the beginning of “Nymphomaniac Vol. II”, older Joe(Charlotte Gainsbourg) describes that precious moment of carnal ecstasy during one sunny afternoon, and Seligman(Stellan Skarsgård), who has attentively and actively listened to her life story throughout the previous film, promptly interprets her experience as a fascinatingly unholy version of religious experience. In contrast to Jesus surrounded by two holy spirits, she was surrounded by Valeria Messalina and the Whore of Babylon, two notorious evil women of lust. Does it mean that she was preordained to her own twisted martyrdom?
At the end of “Nymphomaniac Vol. I”, Joe reunited with Jerôme(Shia LaBeouf) and then reached to the peak of her sex life as having another sex with him. She was happy at first, but that was the beginning of her downturn. She soon finds that she no longer feels pleasure from sex because her private part suddenly begins to feel numb. She tries a very naughty prank with several spoons when she and Jerôme are having a meal at a restaurant(Udo Kier briefly appears as a waiter during that scene), but that is still not enough for her, and she naturally becomes frustrated.
With Jerôme’s encouragement, Joe tries to find a way to regain her pleasure while maintaining her housewife live with her young son(now she is played by Gainsbourg from this point). At one point, she spots a guy among a group of African immigrant workers on the street, and then she finds herself being between him and the other African guy who comes along with him to a hotel room where she was waiting for him. In the previous film, we were served with the montage of various photos of male genitalia, and now we are served with a rather amusing shot of Gainsbourg surrounded by two black erected penises here in this film, which look like arguing with each other as much as their owners who suddenly begin to argue with each other when they and Joe are trying to have a sex. Whatever you think of this explicit sequence, it is surely something we do not see everyday.
And then she is introduced to a perverted sex therapy service run by a courteous guy who is also quite brutal whenever he begins his sadomasochistic job on his female client, and she finds herself getting addicted to this as going through several experiences both humiliating and painful. Like many cases of addicts, she always gets what she wants in the end, and pain and humiliation mean almost nothing to her whenever she feels satisfied. With Gainsbourg ready to endure any inconvenience to be inflicted upon her, Jamie Bell gives a chillingly compelling performance as her sadistic service guy, and their disturbing scenes are effectively presented in the stark background while Seligman observes how Joe’s ordeals can be compared to the sufferings of the Christ.
As she is going for more and more, her life is accordingly disrupted and destroyed. Jerôme, still played by LaBeouf even at this point, finally leaves her, and she loses her son as a result, and then she is ordered to attend sex addict meeting. When she is advised to get rid of anything to remind her of sex, she instantly sets herself on that task, but her attempt only shows how her life is barren and lonely when devoid of anything sexual.
That point resonates with an earlier scene in which Seligman confesses to her that he is an asexual virgin. Like Joe has been filling her life with orgasmic sensation, he has been stuffing his life with books, and that is probably the reason why he remains to be calm and detached while listening to her story packed with many lurid details. He looks intrigued as pensively analyzing her history of sexual activities as her amateur analyst, and he is also horrified by Joe’s downward spiral, but does he really understand her at all?
After finally concluding that she can accept her nymphomania as a part of who she is, Joe walks out of her sex addict meeting and then delves into crime. She begins to work as debt collector for a loan shark played by Willem Dafoe, and it turns out that her sexual experience is useful for her new occupation; in case of one ‘client’ played by Jean-Marc Barr, Joe smartly exposes his deep secret like a wily interrogator, and, after finishing her business to do, she give some, uh, reward to this humiliated guy she comes to pity despite his disgusting sexuality.
Meanwhile, after being advised to have a protégé by her boss, Joe approaches to a young girl(Mia Goth) as recommended, and they soon get closer to each other than expected. Because of the hard life experiences during her childhood, this young girl does not mind being recruited and then exploited, and Joe begins to care about her as teaching her through their field work.
We eventually witness how their relationship leads Joe to a violent fateful confrontation involved with them and the other certain character, and then we are slapped with the ending which feels like a mean, vicious slap on our face while nearly undermining what has been said right before that. Like foreplay is usually more fun than main play, “Nymphomaniac Vol. II” is less interesting than its predecessor as going down into more despair and more babbles, and its 2 hours frequently feel tedious, but I found myself admiring von Trier’s wild, audacious attempt as well as a number of striking scenes supported by brave performances.
There is a bleakly beautiful scene showing Joe and a crooked tree alone in the gray landscape, and I think that tells a lot about what von Trier tries to express through his uneven but compelling story. Some of us are drawn to the dark pit of empty loneliness as driven and tormented by their destructive impulses, and we may not help them at all from the start, but, as fellow human beings, maybe we can understand them at least while learning more about what makes us tick in such miserable ways sometimes.
I give 2.5 stars to “Nymphomaniac Vol. II” because the movie is less satisfying than the first one, but, in my small opinion, these two movies are recommendable if you are really ready for something challenging. When I had a little talk with my fellow critic Michael Mirasol several days ago, he said he felt sorry for Lars von Trier’s tortured artistic soul while appreciating the unflinching attitude of his films. As still scratching my head a bit after experiencing his another dark work, I agree with him more now.