When you love the first part of a series, you can’t avoid anxiety in the wait for the next. Thankfully, regarding Nymphomaniac, only two weeks separated the release of each volume, as opposed to the traditional two years or more of antsy anticipation until a sequel’s release. That’s because Nymphomaniac: Volume II is not a sequel: Nymphomaniac is a single film; it’s just intended to be viewed in two sittings. That fact relieved much of the anxiety, as we know the quality of the second volume will more or less match that of the first. And lo and behold, Volume II does, in fact, prove itself at least as incredible as Volume I, if not more so.
Can you see Volume II without having seen Volume I? Yes, the plot is simple and linear enough that you can jump right into it without really being confused whatsoever, but I highly recommend seeing them as intended: chronologically. That being said, if for some reason you’re faced with the dilemma of seeing Nymphomaniac: Volume II or, say, The Grand Budapest Hotel, for the love of God, just see Volume II, even if you haven’t seen Volume I. It’ll still be the best film you’ve seen in a long time.
Volume II picks up where the story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) in Volume I left off: Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is finally in a happy relationship with her beloved Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), but she has lost her ability to orgasm, practically the only thing that has ever made life worth living for her. They have a baby together, but Joe is still unsatisfied. She tries various new methods to get back the sexual pleasure to which she is addicted, including visiting a calculated sadist (Jamie Bell). Joe tries and fails to participate in sex addicts’ group therapy, then earns money as a contractor for an extortionist (Willem Dafoe). She uses her sexual prowess to torturously coerce information out of clients, and along the way, falls in love with her young friend and potential successor (Mia Goth).
And then in the end, everything ties together perfectly. The ending is the only singular scene that can make or break an entire film all on its own, and Nymphomaniac’s is killer. Afraid to spoil in the slightest, I will regrettably have to abstain from talking about why the ending is so genius. But just as there was no better way to conclude the four-hour legendary epic Gone with the Wind than with “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” the 21st century’s Gone with the Wind could not have ended in a more profoundly psychologically and moralistically ruminative way than it does. Which is a huge relief, considering all the great films ruined by a flat ending.
Its thematic content is what makes Nymphomaniac so outstanding. Many films that try to be philosophically relevant end up delivering little more than skin-level insights, but Nymphomaniac actually offers a healthy portion of food for thought regarding the nature of sexuality. Volume II explores the concepts of asexuality, pedophilia, and the varying forms of sex addiction in a candid and fair manner society has until now been too afraid to openly discourse. The unprecedented frankness of this film allows its active audiences to take a closer look at what can be considered normal or moral.
But Von Trier’s themes are broader than simple sex: it is a commentary on the hypocrisy of all human desire and the schism between wants and needs. Substitute sex with heroin, alcohol, gambling, chocolate, social media, coffee, the American Dream, lying, reality TV, body image, or just about anything else; everybody can relate to Joe’s struggle with addiction’s ebbs and flows in one form or another. At some points of her life, sex totally dominates and nothing else matters; at others, it can be suppressed into the background; and still at other points, the insatiable craving for and ensuing foraging for orgasm shrouds all healthy and responsible aspects of life, including family, love, work, success, and moral purpose, but without the pleasure she was once rewarded for feeding the fire of addiction during the honeymoon phase (a metaphor more literal in the case of a nymphomaniac).
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s role in Volume I was simply as narrator, but here she gets the room to shine at her fullest, as she assumes Stacy Martin’s role as Joe in the flashbacks as she grows older. Gainsbourg wears the agony of the addict on her sleeve; she could have performed the entire film without any dialogue and we would find ourselves no less enraptured in Joe’s story. Your heart will ache when you see this tortured soul kneeling in front of her baby’s crib, knowing what she should do, needs to do, but still dragged away, practically against her will, by her uncompromising thirst for sex. Antichrist and Melancholia demonstrated Gainsbourg’s extraordinary talent, but her work in this epic character study proves her as a powerhouse to be reckoned with, among the greatest performers of our time.
The rest of the cast is also great, especially Stellan Skarsgard, who fleshes out his character of the curious narrattee here in Volume II, and Mia Goth, whose debut performance here will hopefully also be her big Hollywood breakthrough. Unfortunately, the smaller parts in Volume II are not as flashy as Thurman’s or Slater’s in Volume I. Both Jamie Bell and Willem Dafoe are the enrapturing type to draw your eyes and hold them, but they are both unfortunately under-utilized here. It’s not that their characters are under-developed, they didn’t need to be very prominent characters, but the actors’ skills are not put to full use here. Here’s to hoping that Lars Von Trier will collaborate with the under-appreciated Jamie Bell in the future (side note: watching Bell casually flog innocent women repeatedly will be more than unsettling for any fans of Billy Elliot).
Nymphomaniac is an expertly crafted film; I think that’s a hard position to argue against. Its ethical status, however, is a bit more controversial. I’m sure many are accusing the nudity (including many extreme close-ups) and explicit sex scenes of being gratuitous, but I firmly stand against that criticism. In Volume II in particular, none of the nudity or sex is appealing in the slightest, let alone pornographic. They serve simply to openly demonstrate the daily routine and perspective of a nymphomaniac, which can only be done right by a director comfortable with the image of a vulva and a little more mature than a fifth grader (all right, the maturity level of Lars Von Trier will always remain questionable at best).
I am not an expert in gender studies, and I would love to hear the insights on Nymphomaniac from someone who is, but I do not personally interpret the film as misogynistic, although I fully understand why some may see it that way. Joe nonchalantly personifies her “cunt,” as she so tenderly refers to it, as if it has a mind in control separate from her own. To Joe, everything must come back to sex, the most important thing to her, admittedly, even more so than her own child. If she were to represent the female population, she would be a reprehensible model. The key fact of the matter is, though, that Joe is absolutely not representational of all women; her behavior is extreme even to the most sexually deviant of males. She lacks any sense of maternal nature. Joe is not symbolic of her gender; she is meant to be its antithesis. If anything, her dichotomous role as the anti-woman is what’s sexist, if that implies that women should be pure and maternal, and if they’re not, they’re immoral freaks, but I sincerely doubt that message was the intent of the film. Although gender and sex are certainly relevant topics, the core of Nymphomaniac is more universal: it’s all about the acceptance of the dark, sinful, unwanted corners of our imperfect souls tucked away, or unleashed from, inside all human beings.
Review by Matt D’Innocenzo