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Nymphomaniac Vol. II

D: Lars von Trier / 123m

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell, Mia Goth, Willem Dafoe, Michael Pas, Jean-Marc Barr, Kate Ashfield, Christian Slater, Udo Kier, Caroline Goodall, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Ananya Berg

Now living with Jerôme but still unable to achieve orgasm, Joe falls pregnant; she has a son, Marcel, but her maternal instincts are dulled by her efforts to reclaim her ability to orgasm.  Her sexual demands begin to alienate Jerôme, who suggests she takes other lovers as it’s clear he can’t give her what she wants.  She does so but it triggers a jealous reaction in Jerôme and proves unsatisfactory as well.  Joe then learns about K (Bell), a sadist, and visits him in the hope that by exploring this aspect of sexuality it might help her.  Her visits require the services of a babysitter while she is gone, and one afternoon the sitter fails to show up; Joe leaves to see K anyway, leaving Marcel alone in their apartment.  When she returns, Marcel is safe but Jerôme is aware of her desertion, and eventually he challenges her: be a better mother or he will leave with Marcel, and Joe will never see them again.  Unable to stop seeing K, Joe visits him again; when she returns home, Jerôme and Marcel are gone.

Having stopped seeing K, Joe reverts to having sex with any man she wants, particularly at work.  Told by her boss that her behaviour is unacceptable, Joe is pressured into attending a therapy group for sex addicts.  The counsellor (Goodall) tells Joe that in order to control her sexual addiction she must first remove anything that might provoke a sexual response; this will make controlled abstinence that much easier.  This proves impossible and Joe realises she is denying her true nature.  When she next attends the group, she rails against them before leaving for good.

The next part of Joe’s story sees her working for a man called L (Dafoe).  She works for him as a debt collector, using her knowledge of the darker aspects of men’s natures to get them to pay up.  Joe is successful in her work, but as the years go by, L suggests she takes on and train a successor.  L has a candidate for her, a fifteen year old girl called P (Goth) who comes from a family of hardened criminals and who is lonely and shy.  Unconvinced at first, Joe takes P under her wing.  Their relationship deepens over the years until, when P is of age, Joe reveals the work she does and P’s planned part in it.  P isn’t put off and begins to take a more active role in Joe’s work, though when she pulls out a gun and threatens to shoot a debtor, Joe is angry with her.  This leads to an estrangement between the two that leads to disaster when P is given her first solo assignment.  The debtor proves to be Jerôme (Pas).  Unbeknownst to Joe, they begin a relationship, seeing each other whenever P has to collect a payment for the debt Jerôme owes.  On the night of the last collection, Joe follows P to Jerôme’s house and sees them together.  She is unsure at first at what to do, but decides to kill Jerôme and is making her way through the alleyway where Seligman found her when she hears Jerôme’s voice.  He is with P.  Joe tries to shoot him but the gun doesn’t work and he beats her up, thus bringing the story full circle.

Nymphomaniac Vol. II - scene

With the playfulness and abundant humour of Vol. I toned down from the outset, Nymph()maniac Vol. II is a different movie altogether, darker, more austere, less spirited (there is still humour to be found, though).  Joe’s quest to reclaim her orgasm makes her more sexually adventurous, but it also makes her more vulnerable, and her brief foray into motherhood shows how self-destructive she really is, placing her physical needs over the needs of her child.  The correlation between drug addict and sex addict is also given its strongest expression through her visits to K, as Joe desperately seeks a solution to her predicament.  In the same way that a drug addict will take stronger and stronger drugs in an effort to boost their being high, so too does Joe seek more extreme sexual experiences in her attempt to feel again.  (There’s an argument that Joe is also punishing herself during this period but as she finds release by manipulating the mode of K’s sadism, it doesn’t really hold true.)

If Joe’s addiction leads her into more and more “dangerous” territory, it also leads her to the re-confirmed belief that her sexual appetite is validated by her refusal to love.  But, in truth, it’s a defence mechanism, and shows just how scared Joe is of commitment; her inability to feel anything is brought about through Jerôme’s return and their relationship becoming more meaningful.  By reinforcing Joe’s avoidance of her emotions, von Trier shows the loneliness that she tries to hide, and how it distances her from the people around her.  Having her become a debt collector makes a certain kind of sense, as her neutrality in the face of others’ fear or pain makes her a perfect enforcer.

But as with all the best melodramas – and ultimately this is exactly that – Joe falls in love again, unexpectedly, with P.  But it’s a brief, not too convincing affair, with Joe seemingly ambushed by P’s feelings for her.  As P begins to assert her own identity, it becomes inevitable that Joe will not survive the encounter emotionally, and P’s betrayal of her with Jerôme sees her become an avenging angel, determined to destroy forever whatever fragile happiness she’s ever had.  It’s inevitable though that Joe’s plan will backfire because she’s only ever had control over her own body, and her distance from others precludes any influence she thinks she might have (except when she’s backed up by two heavies collecting money).

In the end, the viewer will find Joe’s emotional detachment either difficult to appreciate – it makes her hard to like, particularly in Vol. II – or a necessary conceit without which the movie would struggle to maintain any sense of coherence.  Either way, her selfish attitude to those around her, and her efforts to control them, make Joe a bold but regrettably galling human being to spend four hours with.  Some of her assertions during her badinage with Seligman are so pompous as to defy von Trier’s obvious intelligence: anyone who knows even the slightest bit about organised religion will know that the statement, “the Western church is the church of suffering and the Eastern church is the church of happiness” is so far from the truth to be almost (in its own way) heretical.  With quotes like these weighing things down, Joe’s assertions serve only to highlight just how remote she is from the rest of society, and even though von Trier champions her need to be true to herself, her lack of real introspection makes her appear, by the movie’s end (or beginning), shallow and intransigent.

There have been complaints that Vol. II, by being darker etc., is less of a movie than Vol. I.  But Joe’s story is one that follows a natural progression and the decision to split the movie in two appears to be more of a commercial decision than a creative one.  It is better to see both volumes in succession so as to retain the natural flow of what was always meant to be one four-hour movie, but, ultimately, von Trier’s decision to split the narrative makes no difference to the effect of the overall story.

On the performance side, Gainsbourg’s fearless approach to the material benefits the movie enormously and there’s rarely a moment where her conviction is in doubt.  She does her best to make Joe a sympathetic character but is equally unafraid to show her in a less than pleasant light, her commitment to the role going some way to mitigating the missteps in von Trier’s script.  As the outwardly concerned Seligman, Skarsgård maintains his inquisitive, supportive stance in the light of Joe’s revelations, but is given an horrendous final scene that destroys everything the character has come to stand for.  Martin’s presence, despite Gainsbourg’s proficiency, is not as missed as might be expected, while LaBeouf remains as hard to watch as in Vol. I.  The newcomers to the tale – Dafoe, Goth, Bell – acquit themselves well (Bell in particular is unexpectedly creepy as K), and it’s nice to see Slater and Berg (ten year old Joe) in flashback.

As before, von Trier’s technical control over the material remains in place, though some of the aforementioned missteps make it difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt when some scenes appear included merely for effect (the restaurant scene involving a number of spoons is a case in point, but it redeems itself by being very, very funny).  He’s on less firmer ground with the philosophical digressions that occupy Joe’s time with Seligman, and they become more and more contrived as the movie develops.  And the photography by Manuel Alberto Claro is as beautiful and decorous as in the first movie (which shouldn’t be a surprise).

Rating: 7/10 – no better or worse than Vol. I, Nymph()maniac Vol. II concludes Joe’s story in semi-triumphant style but maintains the faults found in the first movie; archly effective in places, and dismaying in others, von Trier’s conclusion to his Trilogy of Depression shows the wily old fox of arthouse cinema still as infuriating and entertaining (in equal measure) as he’s always been.