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Review: Lars Von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac: Volume II' Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jamie Bell & Shia LaBeouf

Reviews
by Ben Brock
March 20, 2014 7:39 AM
27 Comments
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Charlotte Gainsbourg, 'Nymphomaniac'

Lars von Trier's two-part, multi-version “Nymphomaniac” is destined to divide opinion the way it is itself divided down the middle (and as if it wasn't different enough to different viewers, there are also multiple versions: this is a review of the shorter, theatrical cut of the second volume). If “Vol. I” felt at times like a long-winded dirty joke – meandering, incoherently provocative, self-indulgent without being fun enough to make up for it – then “Vol. II” might just be the punchline (though many found a lot to like in the first volume's exuberant array of explicit sexuality and bizarre analogy: for a positive take you can read our review on Part I here). It's an extremely long way from being a perfect film, but undoubtedly (and whatever you thought of “Vol. I”), there's enough going on in the second volume to keep you stroking your chins (or other, more...private...parts).

Nymphomaniac

When we left her, our heroine Joe – played by Charlotte Gainsbourg with bored detachment that's probably intentional but irritating nonetheless (Stacy Martin, who plays Joe's younger self, appears in the first few minutes of “Vol. II”, but then ages into the Gainsbourg version) – was recounting her erotic autobiography to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) in his dingy apartment after he found her in the street, beaten and bleeding. In her story Joe, having endured the slow, painful death of her father (Christian Slater) and the deepening of a relationship with the slimy Jerome (Shia LaBeouf, as excruciatingly bad here as he was in “Vol. I” and still employing his terrible Cockney accent), finds herself unable to orgasm: a troublesome condition for a self-professed nymphomaniac.

In fact, we learn at the beginning of “Vol. II,” that Joe hasn't experienced an orgasm since a mystical vision she had aged 12, during which she climaxed spontaneously outdoors, accompanied by apparitions of the Whore of Babylon and Messalina, a notoriously promiscuous Roman empress. These two are helpfully identified for us by the relentlessly learned Seligman, who digresses for a while on Eastern and Western understandings of religiosity, this kind of intellectual discursive and elucidation (some quite funny, others just too non-sequitur) having been his role in “Vol. I.” This time around, however, Seligman's function in the story begins to change and to recede. First, he reveals some important information about himself, becoming an actual character for the first time: he's a virgin, and, what's more, asexual, which goes some way to explaining why he has been reacting to Joe's graphic memories with meditations on fly-fishing and the Fibonacci sequence. This is the first of several times in “Vol. II” in which a large part of the first volume is recontextualized and thus savagely undercut: Seligman has been listening to all these stories with deep fascination all along and now he tells us he really couldn't care less about sex.

Nymphomaniac

Not only is this a piece of genuinely clever table-turning on von Trier's part, unlike his more obvious attempts to mess with the audience through shock or absurdity: it also leads to a more satisfying cinematic experience, because in the wake of it, Seligman's interruptions become much less frequent, and Joe herself begins to rain on his parade. Later, when he interrupts to talk about knots and rock-climbing, Joe witheringly (and hilariously) says, “I think this was one of your weakest digressions,” and goes back to recounting her story (later, she outright tells him Seligman's “probably misunderstood the whole [story]”).

The vignette that Seligman disrupts again on that occasion is also the most impressive sequence of the film (and arguably of the two films together), in which Joe visits the dominant, methodical, but oddly bashful K (Jamie Bell). Bell's performance is great, and von Trier's handheld, naturalistic direction suddenly clicks into place around Bell's odd embodiment of careful, almost nervous authority and violence. Not coincidentally, it's also one of the film's sexier scenes, and serves the plot as well: suddenly von Trier's doing everything we might want from him, but have long since stopped expecting. From that point on, the film takes on an even more definite plot for the final (and longest) “chapter”: and while it's a plot that comes basically out of nowhere, it is quite an enjoyable one, rich in actual action and with one particularly striking interrogation scene that provides the film's creepiest moment. Also, Willem Dafoe shows up, which is never a bad thing.

Nymphomaniac

This isn't to say that the whole film works, though. The flatness of some of the performances, whether or not it's intentional, is still a problem, much of the dialogue is massively awkward and/or silly (“when you buy a tiger, you also have to feed it” - Shia LaBeouf, relationship guru) and the plot, even when it does emerge more clearly, is jerky and ad-hoc. There's also one scene that is clearly intended as pure, crass provocation, and represents von Trier at his most pointless and childish – if you've seen the promo image of Gainsbourg standing between two black men, you won't be surprised to know it's that one.

Like most self-appointed provocateurs, von Trier is also not being as original or daring as he claims. Both volumes owe a huge debt to the central figure of Scandinavian cinema, Ingmar Bergman, with his interest in disturbed sexuality and the psychosexual lives of woman and children, which Bergman dealt with (arguably more shockingly than here) in classics like “Persona,” “Wild Strawberries” and “Fanny and Alexander” (which also has the digressions into religion, organ music and strange erotic-spiritual visions of “Nymphomaniac,” and is also absurdly long and usually shown in parts).

Nymphomaniac

There's also the question of the film's finale, and it's here that the relationship between the two volumes rears its head once again. Where “Vol. I” finished with a bleak suggestion of empty sex, the final attitude of "Vol 2" towards sexuality and its impact on the soul/psyche (take your pick) nakedly contradicts that of “Vol. I” by celebrating in plain (if unimaginative) terms the liberating and positive power of bumping uglies. By being placed last, it's this film's perspective that is more convincing, but there's no getting away from how totally “Vol. II” turns the tables on its predecessor. Does this mean they should really be seen as one film, with this as its final viewpoint? Or is this von Trier's ultimate subversion, to release a film on us and then take it all back a few months later with another one, letting neither prevail? It's impossible to say, really, particularly given one or two last-minute happenings in “Vol. II.” In the end, “Nymphomaniac” throws so much at the wall that it doesn't end up by saying anything concrete about female sexuality, positive or negative, that you couldn't counter with something from somewhere else in the film (and over it all, always, hangs the possibility that a given moment or image is just being used to shock us, without any real thought behind it).

“Nymphomaniac” set out to be controversial, so in the end it's appropriate that it should leave us with questions and that the two volumes should take opposing, and unresolved, viewpoints. If you thought “Vol. I” was a brilliant piece of provocation, then “Vol. II” might disappoint you with its detour into (relative) conventionality, its attacks on arthouse artificiality, and its apparently very different politics. But if you found “Vol. I” to be as silly as some did, then “Vol. II” suggests something interesting: Lars von Trier might agree. [B-]

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27 Comments

  • Turin Turumbar | August 24, 2014 11:47 AMReply

    I personally loved volume 1, but the ending of vol 2 killed it for me. Let me explain:
    Volume 1 had a really great insight into how someone who is only interested in sex becomes "attached" to someone (in a loving, kind of creepy stalkish way). I liked the parallels of each of the characters. One very sexual, One absolutely not sexual. Like 2 people becoming the mind of one person. Sex and Intellegence and the correlation between each.
    Volume 2 i started to get disgusted, just because of the whipping and such. It was all very creepy, but i guess people get their kinks yeah? Anyways the ending felt a bit rushed. If the director had made it so that the individual stories happened over a period of time (as in months) then okay i can see how this may make sense. I think the ending was symbolic of intelligence giving in to sex. A sort of, good but not so good ending.
    I couldn't see Seli just giving in so easily. I'm no virgin, but i wouldn't have touched Joe's pussy with a 10 foot pole. Diseases + No Love = Disease Central and No Remorse. Again, the ending was rushed in my opinion.
    To the director: Fantastic movie! Disappointed by the end, but i would consider this movie a work of art no less!

  • Anduin | June 15, 2014 7:43 AMReply

    Conversely, doesnt Joe deserve to be shot, by her own account? Did she not rape the man on the train (unwilling partner, this is a shaky argument I know) and the Debt pedophile. She definately raped him. He did not want it, and she forced herself on him. Isn't she a borderline pedophile herself. At very least an Ephebophile. P was 15 at the time. Didn't P rape her? Why not shoot her?

    The ending also did not ring true to me, although I suspect many men would actually try and initiate sex with a sleeping woman they had grown so close too. It was also, very much out of character for Seli to just up and rape her after that final speech.

  • Guerrrrrerra | April 6, 2014 1:27 PMReply

    I saw this movie (well, both volumes) without ever seeing a Von Trier film, and I thought it was a very cohesive and well thought out story. He is an amazing director, one of the best I've ever seen, and after watching more of his films I would still rank this one very high in his catalog . You could tell that with this director anything that seems "out of step" or "badly done" is being done on purpose.

  • Rameera | April 5, 2014 5:33 AMReply

    I think the ending is unique and well thought given the gun had been introduced. Seligman's character seemed to change throughout vol 2 . You could sense he was becoming sexually interested. All the signs were there. The math turned into silence and I think that once he saw she had no limits he wanted her. The talks about repression spoke to him. He maybe was not truly asexual but in fact guilty of repression . Joe 1 and 2 were very different and I wish they'd cast just one actress that could carry off the old and young stages.. I would have been happy to see two more similar joes. I think it would have been interesting if we were able to see the ending. I think the ending shows joes seriousness of not giving into her nymphomania , killing him shows this.

  • DAC | March 31, 2014 1:03 PMReply

    Ok, I'm really tired of hearing that this film doesn't live up to its supposed promise to "explore female sexuality" because

    1) this never struck me as the LVT's intent and I have yet to hear an explanation for why people suspect this. Everyone just assumes this is an utterly obvious interpretation, yet the film focuses much more on what are termed "outcasts sexualities"—pedophile, asexual, quasi-incestuous, S&M—and one woman's difficult experience living among them.

    and 2) because there's no such thing as "female sexuality" writ large and any such sweeping claim about women's experience is doomed to fail and offend (too lazy to prove this point again here but see Judith Butler, bell hooks, etc). Why anybody would expect or even demand this subject to be treated is beyond me; sexuality can only be approached through its particulars and Nymphomaniac is about a very particular experience of one very particular women, who spends half her time emphatically rejecting such universalizing interpretations. In fact, to characterize Nymphomaniac as "about female sexuality" is to immediately condemn it to failure.

    Please find more interesting and less brutally misguided ways to think about this movie.

  • az | April 11, 2014 5:58 AM

    I see Dac's point, isn't a definitive description of a gender's sexuality reductive and constrictive? How can one say female or male sexuality is absolutely one thing or another, surely sexuality is too weirdly complex and unfathomable for that, not to mention highly secretive.

  • squeesh | April 3, 2014 10:27 PM

    There is a such thing as female sexuality for the simple reason that we as women (I'm one) express our sexuality differently than men----your own sweeping generalization that there is no such thing is really ridiculous,considering all the studies that have done been done on it--by women,no less.

  • az | April 1, 2014 9:26 AM

    Amen.

  • The Song Remains the Same | March 29, 2014 10:10 AMReply

    His entire oeuvre ?

    For myself, Von Trier's oeuvre is getting very hard to accept-- And this comes from a woman who loves to examine the dark side of humanity via film . I gravitate to Von Trier. Even almost accepted the female self mutilation in Anti- Christ.

    Lars Von Trier himself and the incredibly gifted Charlotte Gainsbourg have said they don't understand at times why he 'does what he does'. Well, if THEY don't understand it, who does they think his audience is, everyone of us students of Sigmund Freud?
    He intentionally let's us into his nymphomaniac's (or himself as he has bizarrely stated) past, more compassionately than any other feminine character in his bevy of tormented souls . The movie is good, it has a lyrical flow. A Catharsis for them BOTH.
    But the ending simply doesn't ring true with the story before it . It would have made more sense had Seligman the 'innocent' listener/ observer showed sexual interest and Joe was knowingly titillating him for the hell of it- via her story.
    And at the end? She went HIS room, shot him and simply walked out. That, I could've accepted as her saying, "another man- sex - no hope, he deserved it 'for all the others."
    But , after seeing a self professed kindly asexual --come in her room and RAPE after her all the sincerity ? It made no sense and was a cheap shot by the director just to make sure we knew this IS Von Trier after all- that messed up director with a lot of talent but no shred of a human filter.
    With his tale of Joe, the self professed Nymphomaniac, his oeuvre has put all females in the same league as (likely Von Trier's favorite anti- heroine) EVE. For as her , all of us women take the apple from the snake and are punished for it.
    Why do I know that ? Cause the Bible and Von Trier tell me so.

  • Shoot the Critic | March 28, 2014 1:24 PMReply

    I saw the movie as a whole, with just one day separating Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and for me, it's a perfectly coherent single film. People are railing against the ending, but I don't see how this could be possible unless you are not very familiar with von Trier. There was nothing unpredictable or outrageous about it, given what came before (in not just the film, but his entire oeuvre). I had some problems with the movie, but overall, it's a brilliant feat that is just so much more interesting, complex, and intelligent than 99% of movies out there. Bergman is obviously a huge influence (but rather his "Cries and Whispers"), but the link to Pasolini is striking.

  • Tyler | March 28, 2014 4:47 AMReply

    Why does the ending have to make no sense?

    Joe had the whore of Babylon and Messalina by her side when she was younger, perhaps guiding her. All her life, she seems to have found herself in more and more destructive scenarios - with, perhaps, some respite here and there. Some love felt, if not acknowledged, and here - while I agree a different ending would be more profound - her shooting a man who called himself "asexual" for trying to mount her is not insane or a fumble. It is entirely plausible Skarsgard's character was deviating from his own attraction to Joe during their conversations - maybe he was a virgin, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want to explore in the recesses of his mind - but it doesn't his final action doesn't render his points pointless.

    Furthermore, Joe has decided to stand up for herself and not allow herself to slide into the deprivation she now sees in nymphomania. She has changed and that ending makes such knowledge resolute.

    I loved the film prior to the conclusion. I felt it was so tactful and thoughtful, but I do agree the ending is, in a way, a digression out of a love for cinema and literature. "If you introduce a gun into a plot, you must use it" It surely never needed to be and that the film was able to do that (yet still chose to) is an impressive feat. I think Bergman would be proud.

  • H | March 27, 2014 8:17 PMReply

    What? is internet porn not good enough for you sick minded (*_)@)$E@ has the art gone so far that you feel the need to join the porn world and call it a feature film. Not in my theatres.

  • I | March 28, 2014 11:24 AM

    What are you going on about? Porn and the Movies? Go rail against Megan Fox et al in Transformers et al, not Nymphomaniac.

  • TekBoi | March 27, 2014 6:58 AMReply

    I personally would've prefered that the last two minutes of the movie were omitted. In fact, I will personally edit any copies I have, and re-render them without this stupid ending. It doesn't make sense, he never would do anything like that in a million years, and she was happy that the gun didn't go off.

    Ruined the movie if you take that for consideration. I honestly think that the last two minutes were added when the movie was too long, they cut a large chunk of it, and decided to end it what that garbage. I was contemplating whether or not to support the filmmaker and see it in the theater, but now my opinion has changed.

  • The song remains the same | March 27, 2014 9:19 AM

    TOTALLY AGREE- IT (THE ENDING- THE LAST 2 MINUTES) MADE THE WHOLE THING A SHAM AND UTTERLY HOPELESS.
    VON TRIER TRULY DOES HAVE ISSUES OR HE WOULD HAVE GIVEN US- THE MOVIE VIEWER- HIS AUDIENCE AKA JOE HOPE, & HE DID NOT.

  • TheRealBen | March 26, 2014 8:22 AMReply

    At least next time try and hire a more beautiful woman for the role...jeez..js

  • Greg B. | March 24, 2014 3:25 PMReply

    Shitty crappy art, self-indulgent crap, worthless meaningless rubbish, over-rated horse manure.

  • the song remains the same | March 23, 2014 3:36 PMReply

    Spoilers!
    Well, I had the unfortunate experience of seeing Nymphomaniac Volume 2 BEFORE Volume 1.
    Don't ask.
    Therefore 2 was even better than it would have been had I seen Volume One 1st.
    2 is really very good ( via Trier's forever tortured muse Charlotte Gainsbourg ). Though the ending took me by real shock . It made the Joe's redemption in her story totally meaningless, thus was her whole life. But it's VON TRIER movie after all.
    What WAS I thinking?????
    In Vol 2 I did like the 'Silent Duck' chapter and (I must admit titillating in that Joe does get to this guy (really good Jamie Bell) in a way that means something to them both- even if it is well, in his particular way)
    The main thing for me, I think, was I found NO correlation between Joe 1 and Joe 2 except via the verbal story. Joe 1 was one cold looking UNSEXY emotionless bitch (as a child she was more exciting) compared to Joe 2. Of course she's older in 2, but really?
    Could Joe 1 become the storyteller she is with Seligman as Joe 2??? This could be the way Lars wanted them to act but the 2 are so very different. If NOT- there is a very SHORT future in acting for Stacy Martin. Shia IS a real slimy nothing as revealed in 2 ) Also - his accent - I couldn't even understand him at times.
    Uma Thurman whom I truly adore-- also disappointed me in the Mrs. H chapter, after seeing the trailers, but now that I think about it, most likely she was overacting to get SOME remorse out of Joe 1 . Fully knowing she had just destroyed a relationship-- with the philandering husband's 3 angelic sons looking at her, Joe just sat there lifeless with her next hour's ' conquest' . God, I could've slapped her in the face . The husband was gonna leave his lovely family for HER? OH, Come on.
    The most emotion Joe 1 showed besides when she sat by her her father on his death bed talking about tree leaves ? Was "Wow ", after seeing that she won those 'sweets' via the bet with' B' on the train.
    See 2 it's good.

  • UvBeenWarned About Von Trier | March 23, 2014 4:01 AMReply

    Von Trier has proven track record - Melancholia in particular - of smearing the face of humanity with his own self-hatred and cynicism.

    Make no mistake, chronic depressive patients have been known to drag their carer and friends and family down with them. They want to pass on what they don't want to have. The more advanced cases want to pass on what they have embodied: Hatred itself.

    The last time he lured us into his hateful, hopeless world of Melancholia with a beautiful earth under threat and female nudity.

    This time he is luring us into his apathetic, impotent, joyless world with more meaningless sex and equally indifferent naked human bodies.

    Smell his amorphous, soul-less, joy-sapping mental virus offering from ten thousand km away. Run, smart and joyful ones, run.

  • Kim | March 23, 2014 6:35 PM

    Lets discuss movies

  • Rodrigo from The Playlist | March 21, 2014 10:20 PMReply

    Perhaps mostly to illustrate we are not a hive mind who write reviews by committee, I must respectfully disagree (and disagree with the review of Vol 1.) Volume 2. is far superior to Vol 1. and quite terrific, even profound at times and perhaps evincing Lars Von Trier at his best.

  • az | March 20, 2014 10:51 AMReply

    Not convinced Von Trier's even attempting any kind of real study of female sexuality, more than an exploration of his own depression - I've heard this film along with Melancholia, and Anti Christ christened as his depression trilogy. This would explain the bored detachment of Gainsbourg many people bemoan, as well as the chaotic, throw everything against the wall structure. Socially we're trained to avoid depressive tendencies let alone embrace them in our 'entertainment', so as far as I'm concerned Von Tier's audacious daring has nothing to do with sex or provocation and more to do with diving head first into the still socially taboo black dog of depression.

  • az | March 24, 2014 10:38 AM

    Well thanks for illustrating my point, albeit rather bizarrely, agree with you in that depression is not sexy, quite the opposite, nor is it embraced, it is however a fact of life, and should be explored. What's interesting here is that you actually chose to watch both Melancholia & Nymphomaniac (like you weren't warned on both occasions) now the experience has left you so out of sorts you've had to comment extensively three times under different pseudonyms. Sometimes art works in mysterious and troubling ways, I recommend a week of back to back Aniston romcoms and you’ll soon be back on track.

  • Depressives Are Not Cute Nor Adorable | March 23, 2014 4:20 AM

    Errr, depression is not sexy, definitely not to be "embraced". Depression is a sense of hopelessness, with large doses of irrational fear, unjustified self-hating and others-hating thrown in. If depression is a socially taboo black dog, I want it neutered, and put to sleep so it won't harm people. Don't want any of my loved ones to embrace such a vile thing.

    Depressives like Von Trier make stinky art like Melancholia with no plot and no hope. The premise is the same: we're born to die die die, meanwhile we seek orgasms until we become impotent. Feel free to feel this way. But don't try to glorify the banal and boring. It's annoying.

    People who embrace depression are really not nice to be around; they are not available to be embraced, even if you choose to seek them out to "embrace them". At best, chronic depressives live in their own bubble, literally, wank/ get fat/ anorexic. Sometimes they make art to share their self-loathing with other self-loathers. But in extreme cases, depression leads to self-destruction or homicides.

    Nope, life may not be perfect, people may be bigoted, but Hope is the pet I prefer to embrace.

  • james | March 20, 2014 10:00 AMReply

    "terrible cockney accent", im sorry i didn't hear that at all in volume II. its very clear you just dislike the guy.

  • Sure | March 21, 2014 10:51 AM

    As someone who's actually English - I found his attempt at the accent appalling.

  • Hanna | March 20, 2014 11:05 AM

    wtf, are you serious? His accent in part I is ALL over the place and horrible. You've GOT to be F*cking joking. 90% of reviews across the Internet mention it as an earsore.

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