Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourgh, Stellan Skarsgard
And so it concludes. After abruptly leaving the story (and its protagonist) hanging at the end of Volume 1, the story picks up in more or less the same place in Volume 2, but uses the division to take a sharp turn. Volume 1 is "Nymph," lighter in tone and lighter on its feet, concerned largely with sex as a source of pleasure, while Volume 2 is "Maniac," darker, more serious, concerned with sex as a source of violence. Together, the two pieces suggest a work in which director Lars von Trier is conversing both with himself, revisiting his past films in references both big and small, and, through the narrative's framing device, metaphorically conversing with his critics and audience. Taken together, the two volumes make for a film that is often fascinating, sometimes frustrating, but never boring.
In the opening scenes of Volume 2, Joe (Stacy Martin) is still firmly ensconced in her relationship with Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), though she's lost the ability to achieve climax with him. In an effort to preserve their relationship, and in recognition of the fact that he can't meet her insatiable needs, he suggests that she see other men, though he becomes frustrated when she decides to do so. Years pass this way, and Joe (now played by Charlotte Gainsbourgh) and Jerome have a son, but domesticity does nothing to quell Joe's needs. Eventually she becomes a client of K (Jamie Bell), who provides her with sessions of sadomasochism without a safe word, and with whom she regains the sense of satisfaction that has eluded her during her relationship with Jerome. In one of the film's most overt references to von Trier's previous work, Joe leaves her son unattended so that she can go to an appointment with K, a decision which ultimately leads to the end of her marriage.
Now free of her family obligations, Joe's pursuit of sexual satisfaction becomes hindered by physical injury and a brief period of participation in a support group for sex addicts. Although Volume 2 is not nearly as funny as Volume 1, one of the funniest sequences in either piece is when Joe, having been advised by the therapist running the support group that she should remove everything in her apartment that makes her think about sex, removes pretty much every item from her home and puts padding around the corners of every piece of furniture. Less funny, and more representative of this film's darker tone, is the latter stages of the narrative when Joe begins working as a mob enforcer for L (Willem Dafoe), who eventually pushes her to begin grooming a young girl, P (Mia Goth), to one day take over for her in the enforcement business. Of all the things she's done in her eventful life, this is the only thing she really seems to feel badly about and her relationship with P is what will ultimately bring the story circling around to the beginning, with Joe lying battered in the alley.
As with Volume 1, Volume 2 proceeds as a conversation between Joe and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). More accurately, perhaps, is that it's a conversation between von Trier and his imagined audience/critic. As von Trier's stand in, Joe tells a story which she views as straightforward and basically spells out what she believes it means, while Seligman as the audience/critic keeps interjecting with explanations about what it actually means ("I think this was one of your weakest digressions," Joe playfully informs him after one such interjection), in addition to telling her that her narrative is flawed by unbelievable coincidence and then, in the film's final moments, displaying a level of entitlement that leaves little doubt about how von Trier views his critics and how his films (and himself as a filmmaker) have been treated in critical circles. Although I don't think Nymphomaniac really expresses the pseudo-feminist message it claims to (though since the claim is voiced by Seligman, it may not be von Trier's argument), I nevertheless found the film awfully thought provoking and intriguing.
Nymphomaniac is one film split into two parts, but even though neither part really feels "complete" without the other, there are some fairly significant differences between Volume 1 and Volume 2 which make it difficult to imagine the product without the split. Volume 2 is better acted by virtue of the fact that Gainsbourgh takes over completely from the slightly flat Martin, while LeBeouf and Christian Slater give way to Bell and Dafoe as the major male figures in Joe's life, but it's also a lot slower, plays around less with form, and lacks a bravura scene such as the "Mrs. H" sequence which gave Volume 1 such a punch. On the whole, I would say that Volume 2 is narratively stronger and more compelling, but Volume 1 is a lot more fun to watch (if the word "fun" can really be applied to a von Trier film). Neither half is perfect, and taken together they do not amount to a perfect film, but even its lesser elements (which includes the ending) are more interesting and more bold than most of what's out there right now.