Posted on 24 March 2014.
Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac Vol. II’ Movie Review
“I am whatever you say I am.” – Eminem “The Way I Am”
A self-fulfilling prophecy is that if you believe something to be true, it will likely result that way. It’s one of the key points from “The Secret,” the video/book/key-to-happiness that was all the rage a few years ago. It gave people the belief that if they just concentrated hard enough on a certain goal, they would achieve it. The selling point behind “The Secret” concept was more wish-fulfillment, like a mental magic lamp, but the theory behind it was sound. After all, this guy wanted to go out with Drew Barrymore, so he made a movie about his pursuit called “My Date with Drew” and his stalk was granted.
When last we left Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) from “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1,” she was in a state of battered rest, sipping healing tea and recounting her sexual transgressions to the professorial Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who happened to find her semi-lifeless body outside his abode. He listens intently to her stories, which she recalls prompted by the surroundings of the room in which Seligman has brought her to recover. However, unlike most of the men Joe has told these tales to, Seligman is not titillated. His interest is only from a theoretical standpoint, as he has no way to sexually relate. He describes himself as asexual. The Mr. Glass to Joe’s David Dunn.
But his non-arousal enables to Seligman to withhold any judgment about Joe, which is what she’s expecting. Before her, she sees a man. And men only view her as a sexual object, especially after her described experiences. She believes herself to be a bad person and is therefore pre-disposed to doing bad things. Alas, she’s just a human being.
At one point, Seligman and Joe discuss the philosophical idea of how people develop perversions. She’s looking for an answer to explain how she’s come to be. She believes it stemmed from a lonely moment lying among the grass as a twelve-year-old when she had her first orgasm and a vision of what she assumed was The Virgin Mary. Seligman assures her based on the description, the vision actually contained the wife of Emperor Claudius as well as the Great Whore of Babylon. He tells her Freud’s theory of the development of sexual perversion, that when a child is born, all kinds of perversions exist and that through childhood, some of them drop off, as opposed to the child being initially bereft and acquiring them through other means. Nevertheless, Joe insists she is a “nymphomaniac,” even against the preferred nomenclature of the leader of an employer-prescribed sex addiction meeting.
As much as the first half of the film (“Nymphomaniac Vol. 1”) belonged to the portrayer of Young Joe, Stacy Martin, “Nymphomaniac Vol. 2” is all Gainsbourg’s. If Leo DiCaprio is Martin Scorsese’s muse (yes, I’m aware that role belonged to Robert DeNiro at one point), Gainsbourg is surely director Lars von Trier’s dirty clay to mold to his basest desires (one’s that according to Freud and Seligman were probably there since birth and just never left him behind). With this now her third collaboration with von Trier, it’s practically impossible to imagine Gainsbourg as an actress in anything that’d be roundly deemed non-risque. Not that any of that matters, of course. At least not to viewers. Though she’s nobody’s definition of “classicly beautiful” (or probably any definition of the word), her willingness to put herself in any position von Trier asks makes her indispensable in an art form where vanity typically trumps value (I’m reminded of a scene in “Project Greenlight” where Bonnie Hunt tells the director of “Stolen Summer” how she should be lit). Just because there may not have been another soul to actually take on the role of Joe, doesn’t mean Gainsbourg isn’t perfectly fit for it.
I described “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1” as being as close to a romp as von Trier gets. “Vol. 2” certainly puts him back in a familiar position. If “Vol. 1” were “Under Siege,” “Vol. 2” is certainly its sequel. This is “dark territory.” At 18, Joe loses the ability to orgasm and ventures into the seedy underbelly of addiction, seeking to once again find the high of climax. She encounters a sadist named K (Jamie Bell) who delivers punishment so harsh it’s soon to be adopted up by disgruntled Marines to be administered to trouble-makers in their barracks. Their intercourse is nil. Instead, he slaps her with a leather glove stuffed with quarters, binds her to a couch and whips her ass not in the competitive way, but in the Roman-punishment-sense. He checks her for lubrication like removing a dipstick from a car’s engine and degrades her to a degree where he refers to her only as “Fido” in lieu of ever learning her name. I like to imagine K’s backstory as actually having been Billy Elliot, suffering a ballet-career-ending injury and having to toward sadism to get any satisfaction (hell, maybe that would’ve also answered the Rolling Stones’ problems).
This bout with the mar-K de sade is just a step in the dark direction on Joe’s journey to self-discovery in Seligman’s bedroom. Her stories come in the form of verbal chapters, taking cues from her surroundings. The last chapter is provoked by an image of a gun, but I’ll let her tell you that story, just as she tells it to her would-be savior.
Though the visual flourishes of “Vol. 1” didn’t entirely carry over here (aside from the dueling nymphos vision and a recurrence of the 3+5 graphic) there were moments when I found it impossible to watch the film without my mouth agape. This is a film-viewing expression I usually reserve for bouts of how-did-they-think-of-that brilliance, like so many moments in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” Here, my awe was for audacity. These fly-catcher-causing scenes mainly occurred with K and Joe. There was something about the mixture of the pain-pleasure threshold and the painstaking patience the actors, characters and camera had in creating the situation and having it play out to maximum effect. I can’t say I didn’t miss some of the visual ingenuity from “Vol. 1,” but this was a harder-edged half of the story to tell. All fun was out the window. Even so, we’re still in the good hands of a master manipulator.
As a two-hour film, “Nymphomaniac Vol. 2” had some gaps in storytelling where Joe seemed to leap into a new part of her recollection, instead of telling a nice throughline, which “Vol. 1” pretty much maintained. Prior to release, there was talk of a five-and-a-half hour cut of the film, which needed to be trimmed to four hours and thus split into two halves. I wonder if some of these holes would be filled (pun might as well be intended) by the extra footage, which we supposedly someday may see. Udo Kier is in the film as a waiter for one brief scene, whom I don’t think has any lines beyond “did you get a spoon?” Certainly seems like a cutting room casualty.
“Nymphomaniac Vol. 2,” like its star, her character and its director is nothing if not self-assured. Though Joe expects Seligman to judge her, the film would prefer you to do as Seligman does and withhold any prejudice. One of the highest compliments you can pay a film is that it knows what it wants to be. There are no qualms here.