By: Tim Cogshell
Previously on Nymphomaniac…
Adult Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), beaten and unconscious, is found in a snow covered alley by Seligman (Stellen Skarsgard), an unassuming fellow with a gentle demeanor who takes her to his apartment. In his austere dwelling she recounts her adventures as a young nymphomaniac in a series of stories, each preceded by director von Triers’ requisite thematic chapter headings and cinematic asides. Young Joe’s (Stacy Martin) exploits, from her debut sexual experience with Jerome (Shia Labeouf), through her adventures on a train, to her very dramatic experience with a married man, his kids and his wife (played by Uma Thurman in what might be her best 10 minutes of her career), are all captured in detail, including visual detail, which has been the talk of cinema.
And then suddenly the movie is over.
Those of us who do not require completion, particularly narrative completion, feel satisfied at the end of Vol. I, as though we’ve experienced a complete thought, whether all questions have been answered or not. The most obvious unanswered question being how Joe came to be, ass thoroughly kicked, in that alley in the first place. Unsurprisingly, given that it’s really the second half of one film, Nymphomaniac Vol. II answers that question and a few others, which may satisfy those who do require resolution. Of course, one would not be watching Volume II of Nymphomanic unless the were intrigued by Volume I , which I found most intriguing indeed.
Volume II does have more interesting things to say, and it ups the ante on the provocative imagery and philosophical mind games, all of which is very deliberate and works the gamut of emotions, both in the character and the audience. In Nymphomaniac Vol. II Joe becomes a wife and young mother. This ups the stakes considerably for Joe, and forces the audience to make a “judgement” adjustment as well. As Joe struggles with her sexual deviations – which are manifold – we struggle with Joe; judging her ever more harshly the further she strays from the accepted path laid out for a young woman, a young mother, a young wife; which, if we are at all self-reflective, inevitably leads to us judging ourselves for judging her, and nobody comes out looking good.
Joe’s sexuality leads her down a number of interesting paths, from the festishtic to the culturally taboo. There is a sequence involving a sexual encounter with two black african men which is a nod to both. In this scene Von Trier lingers in a meticulously framed shot that involves these two men, naked and in full erection, with Gainsbourg, a definitively white woman, naked and positioned between them – erection height.
It’s particularly funny and its point is pointed.
Joe also becomes involved in a sadomasochistic “club” of a sort, where her meetings with the sadist involves the provision of her own riding crop, which he uses to her deep satisfaction and our great disturbance. The sadist is played with cool politeness by Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot fame. Billy is all grown up and kinda freaky.
All of this is not so much shocking as it is revealing, both of the players, however naked, and of we the audience. It’s who “we” are individually and as a society that Lars is questioning, a few personal issues involving his own family revelations spoken to in our review of Nymphomaniac Vol. I., notwithstanding.
Lastly, Nymphomaniac Vol. II illuminates Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), Joe’s cloistered, intellectually informed but experientially bereft host. Seligman’s philosophically salient commentary on Joe’s sexual experiences, and on her personal judgment of herself regarding her sexuality, are the result of one gaining all of their knowledge of worldly things through books rather than experience.
This plot-point in Nymphomaniac is more relevant than all the sex and nudity and deviance combined and leads to a most interesting outcome that, at least this critic, did not see coming.
And then, the film, is over.
Yet somehow, I don’t think it is.
Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog/). Twenty years of his reviews are archived at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/