Where were we when we last left off?
My review of “Nymphomaniac Vol. I” says a few nice things, but looking back on it now the phrase that clearly plays is “worst thing Lars Von Trier has ever associated himself with.” This second half of the story, and it really isn't a sequel but a second half, does nothing to change that opinion. This is a frustrating, fundamentally flawed movie, but if one must consider it two separate animals, this latter one is demonstrably better. It's darker, stranger and pushes more buttons. Put simply, it just has more oomph.
If you recall from the first chapter, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the beat-up woman found in the alley, was shocking Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the monkish intellectual, with ribald tales of her youth. As Joe would chastise herself for her slavish devotion to her own pleasure, Seligman would offer tea and sympathy, and also interrupt with painfully obvious grade school-style interpretations of her stories. This doesn't change with the new chapter, which dives right in with the epicurean Joe discovering that her erogenous zones are now no longer receptive to pleasure.
She puts it in a far more blunt manner, and the scenes of her trying to resuscitate her nether regions are, to remind you, very much of the NC-17 variety. Even the birth of a child (with her longtime love Shia LaBeouf) brings her no emotional joy; soon, with the exhausted Shia's blessing, she goes out in search of stimulation from others.
This leads to some moments of comedy (a threesome with African immigrants runs into a language barrier) as well as tragedy. Joe falls in with a sadist (Jaime Bell) whose whippings lead to injury and the eventual destruction of her marriage. (LaBeouf was okay with her diddling around, but this is apparently too much.)
Further chapters bring more perverse shocks, always undercut by Seligman correcting her with analogies to religious parables or ancient customs. He's a bit like Norm from “Cheers” if Norm were a mournful father confessor to a walking (and wholly unbelievable) catalogue of deviance.
This, ultimately, is what doesn't quite work about “Nymphomaniac Vol. II,” “Nymphomaniac Vol. I” and the whole sick show in general. It continually ping-pongs between daring statements about gender, desire and identity and then refuses to grant these themes a mature drama. Lars Von Trier is more interested in “Family Guy”-style cutaways to Seligman's historical corrections. One can only accept these characters by saying “well, it's a fable. It isn't meant to be considered as realism.” But if this is the case, how are we supposed to have empathy for a character who is driven to violence by her untamed desire? Everything about the form of this film is pushing us away from caring about the characters.
This ultimately leads to the movie's final punchline which, I must confess, I respect for its sheer audacity. The end of the film – by which I mean the final forty-five seconds – has a twist that no one could see coming. Well, no one who isn't a depraved and wounded soul. It isn't a Shyamalan-like reveal so much as a decision one of the two main characters makes. Some might argue it violates what that character stands for, but I'll give Von Trier credit here. It isn't a cheat – it's just pure, black nihilism. It is, really, one of the more bleak and depressing statements a 4+ hour film can finish on. And, if one wants to psychoanalyze, it seems to come from a guy who still can't get over the fact that he couldn't get girls to sleep with him when he was younger.
SCORE: 5.5 / 10