Sometimes more is less. At least, that’s the case with this second volume of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which digs deeper under the covers of its sex-addicted protagonist Joe (Gainsbourg), but, perhaps inevitably, seems like director von Trier talking to himself, about himself. The conversation/confession between Joe and her hermetic rescuer Seligman (Skarsgård) continues unabated, and Joe’s story grows darker and more malignant than before. If Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 was von Trier’s idea of foreplay, then rest assured Volume 2 could end with both a bang and a whimper.
Actually, Volume 1 ended in a literal and figurative anticlimax as the seemingly loneliest woman in the world suddenly finds her one touchstone in life – the orgasm – beyond her reach. Up to that point, von Trier seemed content (as if this particular auteur could ever be truly content) to mine the decidedly unerotic aspects of sex addiction with sly humor and a graveyard wit. Much of the latter came from Skarsgård’s character Seligman, but here it feels as if the moral center of the film is more inert, while Joe’s time-skipping sexual travelogue becomes seedier and more troubling scene by scene.
Volume 2 delves into the protagonist’s eager embrace of her darker impulses, not least among them the physical punishment meted out by Jamie Bell’s Kafkaesque “K,” an S&M outlier whose grueling, drooling tortures chiefly recall the lashier moments of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. By the time Gainsbourg’s Antichrist co-star Dafoe arrives, you may think you’ve seen everything – but this being von Trier, you haven’t.
An exchange in which Joe tells Seligman that “society is as cowardly as the people in it, who in my opinion, are also too stupid for democracy” may be spoken by a fictional film character, but it also sounds an awful lot like the director, whose previous public comments – in particular his “sympathetic” statements about Adolf Hitler during the 2011 Cannes Film Festival – left both admirers and detractors scratching their heads. So it is with the two-part assemblage of Nymphomaniac. Not an easy film to love and politically incorrect to the hilt, it nevertheless leaves its mark on you – and it’s rarely, if ever, dull.