By Simon Miraudo
March 28, 2014
As I concluded my review of Nymphomaniac‘s first volume, I wondered if director Lars von Trier would surprise us with a happy ending in its follow-up. For him, that would truly be shocking. Turns out it was a misjudged prediction. I also said the following: “Lars von Trier may have well and truly proven his freaky-deakie credentials over the years, but Nymphomaniac may prove him to be a softie too.” Boy, was that flat out wrong. Having now seen Volume 2 – not so much the ascension of our sex-loving protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as it is a continuation of her descent – the full shape and meaning of his opus has emerged from the fog. Ultimately, I thought it was great. However, thinking it was going to end sweetly was just dumb.
Where last we left our hero: Joe (Stacy Martin as a young woman) had lost all feeling in her nether-regions after finally going to bed with the object of her affections, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). The way Vol. 1 uses this as a – pun definitely intended, and I shan’t be judged for using it – climax, we’re led to believe this sought-after combination of sex and love was no richer than all those empty experiences she’d had with countless strangers. As Vol. 2 opens, her cries of “I can’t feel anything” mid-coitus are revealed to be totally literal, and, frankly, a damning condemnation of LaBeouf’s manhood. An older Joe (now played by Gainsbourg) takes extreme measures to reclaim sensation: firstly by recruiting two African brothers for a logistically-nightmarish threesome, and then by employing the brutal K (Jamie Bell) to slap, whip, and emotionally torture her. That latter approach seems to work, though Joe’s increasing obsession with the crueller side of sexuality endangers her relationship with Jerome, the safety of their child, and even her own life, as we’re finally given an explanation for Seligman’s (Stellan Skarsgård) discovery of her bloodied, unconscious body in that alley from Vol. 1.
Vol. 2 is significantly more metatextual than the first flick, blatantly recreating a sequence from von Trier’s own Antichrist and giving a shout-out to its spiritual cousin, Michael Haneke‘s The Piano Teacher. It also lays on thick the Christian allegory that had been simmering under the surface for the previous two hours. Joe is positioned as something of a Christ-like figure here, enduring first a Transfiguration, followed by several Satanic-seeming curses, and, eventually, punishments familiar to those who’ve glanced at the Stations of the Cross. Our bold director makes no secret of these allusions, literally having our characters explain and dissect them from the safety of Seligman’s apartment. They did something similar in Vol. 1, comparing Joe’s life to that of a fly-fisherman and orchestra-conductor and, erm, a pastry.
What’s different, this time around, is the reveal of a new dynamic between the two. If Joe is a stand-in for the director (“someone who slyly delights in tales of depravity and degradation, but acknowledges the kind of terrible person they might be because of it”), so too is Seligman, albeit subtly. In this instalment, his virginal nature is revealed, positioning him as a supposedly innocent, empty canvas for Joe to bounce practical encounters off of, and who can offer theoretical explanations in return. As the picture progresses, their dialogue feels like a conversation between von Trier and himself about the best way to tell this story. “I think this was one of your weakest digressions,” Joe casually informs Seligman after he tries to compare her desires to something especially banal (as he is wont to do). Later she’ll decry the “sentimentality” of a particularly emotional memory, calling it “a lie.” Even the usually-all-ears Seligman offers up a criticism, making fun of a youthful, transcendent incident of Joe’s, calling it “a blasphemous joke spiced up with a biblical light emanating from nothingness, [followed by] a spontaneous orgasm.” Seems like von Trier is trying to beat his critics to the punch. Polite society is also prematurely chided for the scorn they’ll soon turn towards his movie; they’re accused of being stupid and ignorant and then some. Sorry audience: Lars von Trier likes to engage in a dialogue with himself, and only himself.
That doesn’t mean we can’t engage with his art. Politically correct tut-tutters be damned: there is a lot of interesting meat to chew on in both features. In a world where von Trier no longer talks to press for fear of being misrepresented, he gives us two characters to demonstrate his squabbling inner monologue; the perfect depiction of the conflicting emotions we – and clearly he – feel from his work. Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 does not exist merely in von Trier’s mind, or in the realm of the theoretical. Just as the first one did, it delivers plenty of harrowing, complicated, near-unwatchable moments, punctuated occasionally by honest-to-goodness LOL lines. Chapter VI offers an incredible explanation for its subtitle ‘The Silent Duck’, which is countered by Seligman’s query about a ‘Quacking Duck’, and it’s even funnier. (Okay… maybe you had to be there.)
The final two chapters are perhaps the best of the lot, featuring Willem Dafoe and Mia Goth in key, spoilery roles. Chapter VII, ‘The Mirror’, is a delicate, haunting, weirdly funny and deeply sad vignette about Joe’s attempts to shun sexuality for good (leading her to remove all potentially arousing distractions from her home, resulting in her painting over anything that casts a reflection and adding cotton padding to any inanimate objects with an edge to grind against). Joe’s so eager to get to her explosive final chapter, ‘The Gun’, that she literally interrupts an earlier tale to start telling it. Its theme song is Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down the House’, an interesting echo of Vol. 1‘s propulsive, anarchic anthem, Rammstein’s ‘Führe Mich’. Both songs book-end the narrative, powering the film past the 241-minute mark.
It all builds to a fascinating moral observation by Seligman: the hypocrisy of those judging Joe for the same tendencies that would be lauded in a man. Those thinking that to be nonsense, you need only look to the diabolical Dane Cook comedy Good Luck Chuck – which plays for laughs a sex-montage not dissimilar to one Joe enjoyed in Vol. 1 – for evidence supporting Seligman’s theory. Nymphomaniac, like so many von Trier joints before it, is ultimately about the viciousness of men (emotionally, physically, and psychologically) towards women. Lars von Trier is no misogynist. Anti-humanist, definitely. But not specifically a misogynist.
Nymphomaniac Vols. 1 & 2 run four hours, total. I’d like to see the five-and-a-half hour cut. More of the fearless and brilliant Gainsbourg could never be a bad thing, after all. As was proven by the satisfying, scintillating, often-distressing and uncommonly-moving second entry of Nymphomaniac: the longer it is, the better it gets.
Review – Nymphomaniac Vol. 1
Nymphomaniac Vol.1 & Vol.2 will screen back-to-back in Australian cinemas from March 27, 2014.