Having barely enough time to catch their breath, let alone schedule sessions with a therapist, extreme cinema fans can rejoice at the release of Nymphomaniac: Volume II on VOD today. Those who caught Volume I earlier this month can now see Lars van Trier’s shaggy (emphasis on shag) dog story of debauchery and deviance in its gleefully excessive, 4-hour entirety, and should do just that. While Volume I has been hard to forget over the three week intermission, Volume II proves that even at four hours, those looking to get the most out of Nymphomaniac should take a holistic approach to van Trier’s sex epic.
Picking up where Volume I left off with barely more than a title card, Nymphomaniac: Volume II catalogues the continuing adventures of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a sexually insatiable woman whose tenuous grip on her life and morality gets further shaken by an unexpected biological roadblock. Not unlike your average superhero movie, part two sets out to examine its hero after the thing that defines them suddenly disappears, that thing in this case being Joe’s sexuality. No longer able to experience sexual satisfaction through traditional means, Joe’s odyssey gets even more twisted the further she delves into elaborate and taboo methods forms of sexual expression.
Along the way, there’s bondage, sadomasochism, a hilariously half-hearted threesome, and an impassioned defense of pedophiliacs, to name just a few of the avenues van Trier takes the darker, nastier Volume II down. As with the first half, most of Nymphomaniac’s story is threadbare connected and episodic, linking together phases of Joe’s life through her continued conversation with the kindly and curious Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) in the present day. The structural conceit still provides a terrific framework, but the increased focus on Joe’s downward spiral in the past leaves less room for the digressive analogies and historical tidbits that Seligman would interject with in the first, and the pacing suffers for it.
In keeping with Joe’s sexual rut, the first hour of Volume II sags somewhat, extending the length of each distinct chapter in the story to accommodate their fewer numbers (three here, in comparison to five in the first). The adventurousness and excitement of Joe’s sexual awakening in youth is replaced with a slower, more methodical grind that comes with adulthood, with Gainsbourg quickly replacing Stacy Martin in the flashbacks (though the latter is sent off in a grand fashion that’ll have you avoid using restaurant cutlery for some time).
As Nymphomaniac’s wicked energy starts to flag, the discomfort and despair of Joe’s circumstances make themselves more prominent. Less interested in bouncing from one crazy situation to the next than its predecessor, Volume II has von Trier rubbing your nose in the extremes Joe goes to as her sexual identity evolves. Rather than playing up the absurdity of her increasing need for deviance and fetishism in her pursuits, the minutiae inherent to addiction takes a firm grip of the proceedings. Tintin’s Jaime Bell enters the picture as the master of the world’s blandest dungeon, likely a former office building that’s barely been refitted to accommodate women looking to engage in BDSM; it’s precisely as unsexy as you’d imagine, which is exactly the point.
Volume II: The Desolation of Self-Worth is perhaps less provocative in its sexual content than Volume I, despite the more risqué situations. The clinical eye van Trier brings to all manner of perversion and depravity seems specifically designed to stifle any urge to snigger that his audience might feel. One scene in particular, in which Joe all-but destroys a man by exposing what gets his motor going, helps to reframe the entire experiment as a kind of sexual litmus test for the audience, presenting them a buffet of sexual indulgence, then wagging the finger at them for finding something they might like.
What, if anything, van Trier wants to say with Nymphomaniac is the larger question, as Joe’s own story peters out to an abrupt, yet still despairing conclusion that leaves the broader themes of the film open to interpretation. The characters discreetly and not so discreetly addressing parallels between sex and everything else in life could be the film foregrounding its subtext, or could just as easily be van Trier having a laugh at anyone feeling the need to look for some greater meaning beneath all the flesh.
To borrow its own metaphor, Nymphomaniac: Volume II is van Trier clipping his right fingernails: a harder, less enjoyable experience than the left hand clipping that was Volume I, but a no less rewarding act. Together though, the whole of Nymphomaniac makes for a brutal and beguiling film, one that’s often as harrowing as it is hysterical. Embracing contradiction is key to embracing Nymphomaniac, and its celebration of excess and polarization that’s sure to provoke a reaction. What that reaction will be is up to you; giggle and balk all you want at the naughty images and explicit content, there’s a Rorschach blot waiting for you on the other side of this peephole.
Nastier than its predecessor in most every way, Volume II works better as the conclusion to the Nymphomaniac saga than as an individual viewing experience.