Things get really kinky in Nymphomaniac Vol. 2, the second chapter in director Lars von Trier’ epic-length saga about a woman who can’t get enough. If you saw Vol. 1, which ended with our perpetually horny heroine Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) losing all feeling in her sexual organs, you might be wondering, “How could this movie outdo the first one?” To quote the great Bachman-Turner Overdrive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
In Vol. 1, a man (Stellan Skarsgard) found Joe bloodied and unconscious in an alleyway and took her into his home to nurse her back to health. She told him stories of her promiscuous teenage years and her relationship with Jerome (Shia La Beouf). Vol. 2 begins with Joe revealing she had her first orgasm at age 12 — it came to her as a near-religious vision — and then picks up where the previous film left off, with Joe flagellating herself down there in hopes it’ll start working again, the way you used to bang on a TV when the reception went out until the signal returned.
But no dice. Joe starts trying more creative methods of self-stimulation (including a bit with spoons that is von Trier at his most outrageous). She has a son with Jerome, who re-enters her life, and she tries to use him to get her transistors going again (“If Jerome was hoping for a break from what was for him now strenous work, he could forget about it.”) Although the movie is played perfectly straight, and Gainsbourg treats her character’s dilemma with the utmost seriousness, there’s a streak of sly wit coursing through the first half of Vol. 2. Von Trier is as much of a prankster as he is a provocateur, and although his sense of humor is not for everyone, he can be wryly funny when he wants to (a scene in which she lashes out at the members of a self-help group is an example of the director’s warped sense of comedy).
Eventually, though, all levity seeps out of the movie. Joe starts going to see a sexual therapist (Jamie Bell) whom she hopes will cure her of her affliction, or at least help her turn the switch back on. I’m not a doctor, but I feel fairly confident in the opinion that his treatments are not approved by any medical board in the universe. This is the point when Vol. 2 becomes as graphic as von Trier’s Anti-Christ, mixing physical pain and sex to such a degree the film becomes hard to watch. Gainsbourg is game for anything (this is her third film with von Trier; has an actress ever put so much trust in her director?), and the gravity of her performance anchors the movie, keeping it from floating away into a cloud of shock value and outrageousness. When Joe says “sexuality is the strongest force in human beings,” you buy the line because of how well the actress has sold it.
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Much like the first film, Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 isn’t remotely erotic or a turn-on — it’s a curiously intellectual experience that doesn’t move you below the neck, including the heart. This is rare for von Trier, whose best movies ( Dancer in the Dark, Melancholia, Breaking the Waves) have always built to huge emotional climaxes. The film is never boring, but it isn’t much for ideas, and it’s not essential viewing, either. A last-minute twist implies von Trier intended the whole 41/2-hour series as a kind of high-minded goof, and so should you — provided you can keep from looking away.