If Nymphomaniac: Volume I was about nympho Joe’s reverse-sexual awakening – the startling self-discovery that love was the missing ingredient from her multiple-lover-per-day sex life – Volume II does a reverse on that: after abandoning love, Joe delves further down the rabbit hole than she could have possible imagined.
That’s exemplified by the mysterious K (Jamie Bell), who sees Joe at his non-discreet flat for one-on-one bondage sessions that are as disturbing for their psychological roleplay as for their scenes of torture. A cat o’ nine tails sequence, however – featuring flesh torn from Joe’s behind in explicit detail – is genuinely shocking, and rivals 12 Years a Slave for the most horrifying whipping sequence of the year. Joe names this chapter of her story “the silent duck”, after one of K’s more extreme practices. Seligman: “One could hardly imagine the quacking duck.”
Volume II gets considerably darker than Volume I; as Joe (now completely played by Gainsbourg) has lost her ability to achieve sexual pleasure, her exploits become more and more extreme. In another provocative sequence, Joe seeks out an African partner who she cannot verbally communicate with (utilizing the services of a translator, who provides some of this entry’s only comic relief), only to be surprised when he brings a companion to their “date”.
But while Joe has lost her ability to achieve orgasm, her lifestyle and emotional state – and her way of dealing with men – has left her with a unique employment opportunity as a debt collector. Employing some of the techniques she learned from K, she’s able to psychologically emasculate men to get them to pay their debts. Willem Dafoe stars as Joe’s employer, while Mia Goth is the young girl she trains as an assistant.
While these scenes still provide interest as chapters in Joe’s life, the film starts to lose its focus towards the end; where early chapters brilliantly charted Joe’s life through her sexual experiences, this chapter goes for something a little different, and doesn’t quite reach the same resonance. (In an odd choice, Jerôme – who was played by LaBeouf alongside both Martin and Gainsbourg earlier in the film – is played by a different actor in later scenes.)
Nymphomaniac: Volume II is also very much about Joe’s relationship with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the man who she narrates her story to. Seligman is representative of all things: Joe’s inner voice, her conscience, public perception, and the audience watching the film.
Seligman’s asides throughout the entire film – some relevant, some not so much (a fact that Joe comments on) – are from the perspective of an audience to whom Joe’s lifestyle is completely foreign: we may have knowledge of the things she speaks of, but have no actual experience of them (in fact, Seligman is a virgin).
As Seligman comforts Joe, he approaches her as a foreign body; while analyzing her lifestyle through literate terms, he is violating her in a way that she isn’t prepared for. While I liked the metaphorical aspect of the Joe/Seligman dynamic, I was a little disappointed that von Trier chose to conclude the film in purely allegorical terms (taken literally, the film’s finale seems overwrought).
In its current form, the two halves of Nymphomaniac don’t really work without each other: this second film, in particular, is darker and more brooding, and doesn’t have the raw energy of the first installment. Taken together, however (I saw the films back-to-back) this is a significant piece of work, and certainly worth exploring for any viewers up to the challenge. Despite the length and the subject matter, this is very likely the director’s most accessible film to date.
Both halves of Nymphomaniac are gorgeously shot by Manuel Alberto Claro, who also lensed Melancholia for von Trier; even the sparse single-location sequences convey a gritty intimacy. Music throughout the film – which goes from Bach to Rammstein and concludes with an incredible cover of Hey Joe by Gainsbourg – is perfectly chosen.
Von Trier’s “director’s cut” purportedly features an extra hour of explicit scenes, though I cannot imagine they will add much to the experience: this version of Nymphomaniac features only a few brief shots of penetration, but they memorably punctuate the film at key moments during the story.
While I can only suspect the von Trier’s cut will offer a more “complete” experience, these two parts – which don’t really work on their own as individual features – combine to offer one of the most memorable cinematic events of the year.