Nymphomaniac: Vol. II is a descent into hell. Where Vol. I was a (mostly) safe and playful story of a young girl exploring her sexual impulses, Vol. II is a brutal, unflinching depiction of addiction consuming a lifelong addict. There are no montages of joyous sexual discovery, no “chocolate sweeties” to be won for marathon banging; instead, there is a brightly lit torture dungeon of pain, and wet towels used as tools of agonizing restoration. Vol. II is an exercise in chaos – as in, chaos reigns, and Lars von Trier couldn’t be happier.
As Vol. II begins, Joe (Stacy Martin) and her first sweetheart, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) are still ripe with discovery, but, as the present day Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) continues to relay her story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), we gather that young Joe will soon tumble down. Her fall begins with her physical loss of sexual sensation. She feels nothing, and her life is all but ruined because of it. Jerôme reluctantly encourages Joe to seek sexual pleasure elsewhere, a bold decision that quickly proves disastrous. Life goes on, Joe and Jerôme become parents, and Charlotte Gainsbourg seamlessly, fully assumes the role of Joe.
That’s when things go completely off the fuckin’ rails.
In a last ditch effort to rejuvenate her sexual appetite, Joe begins seeing K (Jamie Bell), a mysterious man who beats the living shit out of middle aged women who are eager to bow to the mercy of his fists. I could continue describing what Joe puts herself through, but in all honestly, I’m tired. I was tired watching the film, and I’m tired writing about it. This film uses violence so routinely, I actually grew desensitized to it. In fact, I was often so bored that I found myself unwilling to accept additional material.
For example, late in Vol. II, the film puzzlingly establishes a plot for the first time. Up until this point, the entirety of Nymphomaniac has been a character study of one woman’s life struggle, but when Joe enters the debt collection business, her character is given a cheap motivation: collect money using her skills, and make money as a result. And, despite a spirited performance from Willem Dafoe as Joe’s boss, this whole plot is lazy and, by the film’s end, eye-rollingly convenient.
The Seligman character continues to be the audience’s doppelgänger, a fitting device, considering the shift in Seligman’s attitude toward Joe’s behavior. In Vol. I, he defended her actions, convincing her that her past was nothing to be ashamed of. In Vol. II, his sentiments shift to shame and aversion. There’s one act in particular (which I don’t want to spoil ) Joe commits while working as a debt collector that repulses Selgiman. Much like the audience, the defender becomes the disgusted.
Earlier, I hinted at some worthy aspects of Vol. II, of which it is only fair to expand on. The acting, chiefly, is universally excellent. Charlotte Gainsbourg has more to do in Vol. II, and while I didn’t appreciate all of her character’s choices, I loved what Gainsbourg did with the role. She is holy dedicated to Joe for every moment of Nymphomaniac, and the film benefits greatly because of it.
Selgiman, too, is given more depth in Vol. II and Skarsgård handles it how Skarsgård handles everything, with complete command. Stacy Martin continues to confidently assert herself as a fearless actress, and Jamie Bell presents a fractured man that I would love to explore more (seriously, what the hell has that guy lived through?). But in truth, the one performance I can’t shake is Shia LaBeouf’s, who is responsible for the film’s best, most violent moment.
When Joe arrives home one evening after a visit with K, she finds Jerôme furious at the fact that she left their infant son unattended while she was out. What ensues is one of the most devastating movie arguments I’ve seen in some time. It goes on and on, with a Christmas tree glistening in the background as Jerôme taunts Joe into saying goodbye to their child. That is violence. That is pain. It’s a scene that shows the true hell of addiction, and the repercussions caused by it. If only the rest of the film was as compelling.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I: B+ (my review)
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II: C+