Nymphomaniac Volume II has its feet planted firmly in the ground, and it provides the resolution I sought after seeing the first film, though not in the manner I was expecting. It is not as philosophical as Volume I, which means its characters — Joe and Seligman — are rooted in real events instead of relating real events to irrelevant references. The story is tighter. The acting more precise. And even though it ends on a questionable note, Volume II is as insightful a movie about sex as any I’ve seen.
Volume I established the characters and the situation. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a nymphomaniac, picked up in a back alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a bachelor who owns a run-down apartment in an unknown part of the world (it’s useful to point out that in this nameless city, they still know of Ian Fleming and James Bond). Seligman offers her some simple comforts, and she repays him by feeding his curiosity and telling him her life’s story.
Volume I ended with the young Joe (Stacy Martin) — seen in flashback — in crisis. She could not feel anything during sex, which is a big deal for someone who’s addicted to it. Imagine craving your favourite food and being unable to taste it on account of the cold, but all of the time. Volume II begins with Joe explaining this to Seligman, who, we learn, does not feel anything relating to sex. He is asexual. Keep this in mind readers; it will come in handy towards the end of the movie.
In my review of Volume I, I observed that Joe is a social outcast. In this film, she calls herself an outcast. She reluctantly attends a therapy group at the behest of her boss, and just when we think she’s making progress, she storms out with a tirade of condescending insults. You see, to her, she is sick. But where others feel the need to find a cure, she feels she need only find an outlet. Or outlets. And so this is what Volume II offers — all of Joe’s outlets, some of which are not exactly mainstream.
There are three chapters this time, all improvised by Joe based on what she sees around Seligman’s room. There’s The Eastern And Western Church (The Silent Duck), The Mirror, and The Gun. One chapter is painful, another traumatic, and the third pitiful.
The painful one is the most shocking. We meet a character called K (Jamie Bell), who abuses women physically and absconds from any sort of intercourse. “What do you get out of it?”, Joe asks. “That’s my business. And you shall not mention it again”. Bell plays this part with understated grace. K is the sort of man who could very possibly be dangerous on the streets. But he is smart. He has focused his little violent fetish into a small white room, tucked away down a corridor that seems borrowed directly from a horror movie. The women — or his victims — wait in the lounge, quiet, heads bowed down. Total submission. One by one they are called in. Some are chased away for being a day or two early. Joe is hooked on this man and his mysterious ways. She goes to him every night for a little bruising, neglecting her newborn child in the cot.
This drives Jerôme crazy. Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), you remember, is the love of Joe’s life, though neither would admit to it. The child is theirs, and when Jerôme comes home one night and finds his son ready to leap off the balcony while chasing snowflakes, he snaps and leaves Joe, baby in tow.
There are many other interesting stories told by Joe. Lars Von Trier has done a tricky thing with his screenplay; he makes it seem as if there are more stories than the film’s duration will allow. It runs for 2 hours, which is modest, and yet there is no end to what Joe and Seligman discuss. They cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Religion, history, Ancient Roman facts, threesomes (man, those Africans pack large parcels), language barriers, homosexuality, loyalty, betrayal, murder, wickedness, redemption, sadness. What more is there? The story is complete. Joe’s life is wrecked. We don’t take pleasure in this, but we are intrigued by her journey.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the filming of these two movies. Too explicit, some say. It’s almost like watching a porno. Is it? Porn is meant to arouse. I was not aroused by the sex in Nymphomaniac. Each sex scene is attached a stigma. Yes, there is a lot of nudity and closeups of genitals, and at some point real penetration occurs (between porn star body doubles, reportedly). But consider the story behind the sex. It is always a sad one, burdened by Joe’s addiction. The last sex scene is not remotely sensual, or even sexual. It is a show. A dirty show by dirty people. Strangely ironic it is, because Joe is no cleaner. And then there’s the very last scene, just before the film cuts to black. “You’ve fucked thousands of guys”, we hear Seligman say. Oh my. Has he not been listening?
Best Moment | There are strong performances this time round. Joe’s stint as a debt collector sprouted some thought-provoking ideas about pedophilia and addictions. Burning down the house!
Worst Moment | It might have to be the ending. It’s open to interpretation, sure, and I like that sort of thing. But it does seem out of character.