Sunday, April 6, 2014
Nymph()maniac: Volume 2
Nymph()maniac: Volume 2
Dir. Lars Von Trier
3.5 out of 5
My thoughts on Nymph()maniac: Volume 1 can be found here.
Contrary to the recent history of epic-length films broken into installments, Nymph()maniac: Volume 2 really does have two discrete halves - in other words, it's more Kill Bill than The Hobbit. And while the opener was no Sunday drive, Vol. 2 is unmistakably a Von Trier film, a dark chronicle of pain and suffering and occasional pathos that serves as a fitting companion piece to the more sensuous Vol. 1. After a few brief scenes picking up the pieces of Vol. 1's semi-cliffhanger, the flashback timeline catches up to a point where Joe - the woman recounting her sexual autobiography to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the bookish Samaritan who discovered her beaten and bruised in an alley in Vol. 1 - is now played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The casting switch coincides with wholesale changes in Joe's life, including a child fathered by her bad penny-lover Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and the loss of her ability to achieve sexual satisfaction.
The latter obviously presents certain challenges for a nymphomaniac, which allows Von Trier to explore his obsession with the extremes of human behavior. Joe begins dabbling in riskier forms of sex in her effort to recapture the thrill, trying everything from random encounters with non-English speakers (the theory being that sex without verbal communication presents a certain level of danger) to submitting herself to a sadomasochist (Jamie Bell) who doesn't believe in the concept of a safe word. (In a development that will surprise no one familiar with his work, Von Trier quickly picks up on the analogous nature of pain and pleasure.)
It must be stressed, however, that this is even less lurid or erotic than Vol. 1, which already had its share of raw, unsparing moments. Von Trier seems more determined than ever to remove his subject matter from a titillating context, employing a drab visual style that emphasizes late 20th-century aesthetic decay in its crumbling council housing, copious fluorescent lighting, and the characters' increasingly frumpy wardrobes.
More than just a controversy magnet or an exercise in miserabilia, Nymph()maniac is Von Trier's bid to recontextualize sex in as many ways as possible. In Joe he has a character who explores a definition of the sexual impulse beyond an expression of love and intimacy or a biological urge to the point where, in her world, it's simply a reflexive response: a viewpoint that comes into play when Joe launches a mid-life career as an expert interrogator/debt collector for an upmarket dirty work specialist (Willem Dafoe).
The film's late push to make Joe's sexual experience "useful" allows Von Trier to take potshots at his favorite target - therapy - and leads the metaphorical interplay between Joe and Seligman, one of the more unexpected pleasures of Vol. 1, into more didactic territory. Seligman's final monologue feels a bit too tidy and academic after nearly four hours of the Von Trier's emotional battery, but it's followed by a final twist so improbably wild and over the top it either ruins or saves the film, depending on how much you prefer to see Seligman as the filmmaker's surrogate. Whatever the case, Nymph()maniac is a fully realized, fully adult emotional journey that speaks seriously and sympathetically to the wanton and the chaste alike.