At the end of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I, the psychologically damaged, sex-crazed heroine Joe (played by Stacy Martin as a young woman, and Charlotte Gainsbourg in middle age) reconnects with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), the man she’s lusted after since she was a teenager. But then Joe finds she’s become sexually numb, incapable of orgasm. This is where Volume II begins, with Joe and Jerôme living a life of uneasy domesticity, raising a child together and spending every spare minute in bed, as she asks him to screw some sensation back into her. Or at least that’s where part of Volume II begins. As with the first volume of Nymphomaniac, there’s a framing device, with the bruised older Joe continuing to tell her story to a curious bookworm named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who interrupts her with comments and reference-points, like a human Wikipedia. There are two stories happening simultaneously in Nymphomaniac, and by the end of Volume II, it’s even clearer that Joe’s relationship with Seligman—however brief—is one of her most important.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I was surprisingly entertaining, with moments of dark, sick humor and a lively, varied style driven in part by Seligman’s digressions and in part by Joe’s myriad adventures. Volume II has fewer chapters, and fewer tones. Over its first hour in particular, it becomes almost unbearably intense, as Joe’s obsession narrows. Desperate to feel something, she neglects her family and spends long afternoons with “K” (Jamie Bell), a sadist who ties her up and beats her—with no safeword, and after warning her that he’ll never have sex with her, or show her any mercy.
The second hour of Volume II changes gears dramatically, as Joe becomes a debt-collector for the mob—using what she’s learned from a lifetime of manipulating and being manipulated by men—and gets her own young protégée, “P” (Mia Goth). But the criminal milieu, while weird, doesn’t enliven Volume II. The film’s mood remains morose, and the pace slower, with fewer Seligman interjections. And there are multiple scenes throughout that are excruciating to watch, like when Joe leaves her infant son unattended so she can go get whipped with a riding crop, or when she describes a pedophiliac encounter in detail to one of her debtors, to reveal his secret shame.
This doesn’t make Volume II a slog; on the contrary, the film is consistently gripping and fascinating. Von Trier brings in more of his self-reference—including a direct nod to Antichrist in a scene that mimics its opening, right down to the aria “Lascia Ch’io Pianga”—indicating once again that Nymphomaniac can be read as the highly allegorical autobiography of an artist who suffers deep lulls between creative highs. And von Trier keeps peppering the picture with good, dirty jokes, such as when Joe has sex with two black men who argue about who gets to fill which of her orifices, while Joe watches their erections bob angrily. A lot of Nymphomaniac: Volume II has to do with “appropriateness,” with von Trier defiantly reclaiming non-PC humor and lifestyles from a society of hypocrites. And a lot has to do with gender roles, with von Trier framing Joe as another of his women who intentionally suffer abuse from men in hope of a fleeting moment of grace.
But neither volume of Nymphomaniac is meant just to be analyzed; they’re both designed to be felt. Seligman’s story is about a man who knows everything about religion, but has no faith—a man who can listen to Joe describe her sexual experiences in graphic detail, and get distracted when the numerical sequence of her partner’s insertions follow Fibonacci’s numbers. Von Trier probably has some sympathy for Seligman, with his stunted desires and his ability to look at everything from fresh angles that obscure their literal meaning. But this movie is called Nymphomaniac for a reason. It’s about a woman chasing a feeling, whether it’s the intimacy she had with her father when she was a girl, or the spiritual transcendence that accompanied her orgasms when she was in her teens. With thoughtfulness and passion, von Trier strives to give his audience a high, accompanied by the meaning of the high.