By Ben Brock | The Playlist March 20, 2014 at 7:39AM
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).
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.
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.
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).
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-]