Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
by George Wolf
When we left Joe’s life story at the close of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, she had finally married Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), only to find she had lost the ability for sexual pleasure.
Well, she put it a bit more bluntly than that, but you know Joe!
In case you don’t..Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has been telling her tale to the curious intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). After finding Joe lying in the street badly beaten, Seligman took her to his place for recovery, and has been sitting at her bedside as she recounts a life dominated by her insatiable nature.
While Vol. I was an effective, if uneven, look at a woman unabashedly in control of her sexuality, Vol. II dissolves into the brilliant but misunderstood filmmaker shaking his fist at an unworthy society.
Joe’s story continues, and we see her exploring more extreme sexual experiences (some depicted graphically enough to earn you college biology credits), including regular appointments for physical abuse at the hands of an S&M “counselor” (Jamie Bell, quietly disturbing).
This behavior naturally takes a toll on Joe’s role as a wife and mother, as well as her ability to hold down a job. But, her experience with men is valued by shady character “L” (Willem Dafoe), and she accepts his offer to go to work in his “debt collection” department.
As Joe brings events closer to the point where Seligman found her, von Trier’s script gives Joe long, philosophical speeches while Seligman serves as the vehicle for convenient straw man arguments von Trier is eager for Joe to knock down.
After years of being of accused of misanthropy, von Trier has been silent since his controversial Hitler comments a few years back. When Joe proclaims she cannot say “whether I left society or it left me,” it’s not hard to guess who “me” really is.
Vol. II‘s main advantage over Vol. I is Gainsbourg. While Stacy Martin was indeed impressive as the younger Joe, she can’t match the emotions Gainsbourg explores. Mining her character’s experiences for every bit of depth, Gainsbourg never allows you to feel it’s safe to take your eyes off of Joe. She’s good enough to almost make up for the absence of Uma Thurman’s comically tragic, absolutely show-stopping performance from the first installment. Almost.
LvT continues to be a filmmaker that should never be ignored, but Nymphomaniac: Vol. II ultimately feels like a missed opportunity.
What could have been an expanded take on how society views sexually powerful women instead becomes akin to a public stunt, a vehicle for von Trier to proclaim that he is what he is, and he ain’t ashamed.