In the grim second volume of Lars von Trier's erotic epic "Nymphomaniac," the great Dane dares us once again to sympathize with a morally monstrous antiheroine -- here, in the form of Joe, as played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who's game for anything and everything for the role. The film hits theaters April 4 via Magnolia Pictures and is now available on video on demand. (Here's our review of "Volume I," opening in theaters Friday.)
"Volume II" picks up exactly where the first left off, with Joe (played in her young adult years by newcomer Stacy Martin) falling for Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) while realizing she's lost all sexual sensation. One minute she's having orgasms around the clock and the next, just like that, the orgasms stop.
Inevitably, Joe's inability to come when called forces Jerome to encourage an open relationship to preserve the relationship. But her endless chain of sucks and fucks is null and void. And after she and Jerome have a baby, Joe resigns herself to a personal bed death whose bodily and psychological toll shove her off a ledge and into an underworld writhing with the kinds of freaky sex that can only exist on the far-side of straight-and-narrow intercourse. "There was a world far from mine I had to explore, and there, or perhaps on the other side, I could get my life back," Joe (Gainsbourg) recounts to the bookish Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), her knight in plainclothes and a prime candidate for the biggest nerd of all time. (He's the man who discovered Joe, bloody and bruised, in an alley in the first film.)
Von Trier is using Joe as a mouthpiece for his own issues, and for those of all women (or so he believes, at least). Some of it's a tough pill to swallow. "I love my cunt, and I love my filthy, dirty lust," Joe spits at an office-mandated sex addicts' anonymous meeting. The film's most sublime and, oddly enough horrific, segment involves Joe's encounters with an unassuming S&M practitioner played by Jamie Bell. It's an extremely graphic set of scenes but, I suspect, these are the heart of the films. Everyone will be talking about a ribald, slapstick segment where Joe finds herself square in the middle of a threesome -- or a "sandwich," as she calls it -- with two fully tumescent African men.
And though "Volume 2" plays nastier than its predecessor, von Trier's epic climax to "Nymphomaniac" is not without its shares of irony or self-awareness. In two scenes likely to be very divisive among even the most staunch Larsians, he tips his hat to his very own love-it-or-hate-it art house horror film "Antichrist." In one, a young and virginal Joe experiences spontaneous orgasm in the same place where "Antichrist"'s cabin was set; in another, her longings lead her into cruel sexual games while her infant son sleeps alone in his crib at home, and "Antichrist" fans will know that, when there's an open window and a ledge just a few feet ahead, a couple of wooden bars aren't going to keep this kid down.
Von Trier is at his best when he doesn't attempt to mold a plot out of his often shapeless female character studies. Toward the end of the film, a new character emerges, bringing with her a third-act jammed with forced contrivances that essentially move the story into unwelcome melodrama (and a gangster pic?). The best parts of "Nymphomaniac" are its meandering smelling-of-the-roses, when the film stops to gaze at a malformed tree, or even when the von Trier's hyper-literate script takes pause for Seligman's admittedly silly footnotes about art, fishing and religious iconography.
The director's marked turn to the episodic -- as this volume, like the first, is another a picaresque of loosely sutured vignettes sprinkled over time -- taps into the ways in which we're more willing than ever to dive deep into a single character, or cast of characters, and follow them into oblivion over a period of hours. Two hours, or even three, wouldn't have been enough for "Nymphomaniac," which as a whole is threaded with the richly woven textures of a great postmodern novel, rife with lengthy digressions, elaborate scene-setting, references to other art forms and an unerring sense of the master who's pulling the strings (and our legs).
And in spite of the film's problems, it's been a pleasure -- a sick one, but a pleasure indeed -- to spend four hours locked in von Trier's head as never before. "Volume 2" showcases the filmmaker at his most confident, uncompromising and empathetic. Even if the film around her feels constructed, Joe is, finally, made of real flesh and blood. There must have been something freeing for von Trier about those off-color remarks that pissed off the puritan press at Cannes 2011 because now, banished in art house exile, he has no one to answer to but himself. And that's the real mark of an artist.