When we last saw Joe, the central character of Danish director Lars von Trier’s two-part, four-hour exploration of the darker corners of human sexuality known as Nymphomaniac, she had suddenly lost all feeling in her nether regions, making her incapable of enjoying sex with sort-of-domestic-partner Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). There are probably a lot of reasons why one would not be able to relish doing the nasty with the former Transformers star, but Joe – still played by the dead-eyed Stacy Martin at this point – is horrified by the prospect nonetheless.
So alarmed is she that, now suddenly changed into Charlotte Gainsbourg (although LaBeouf remains the same and they have a little boy), she embarks on a course of action that takes her into a number of increasingly lurid sexual scenarios. One of the first, and funniest, starts out with Joe standing between two well-hung and vaguely threatening immigrants, their old boys waving in the air as they stop to argue in their native tongue over which one of them will penetrate which orifice (she grabs her things and sneaks out as the debate continues).
But things take a much more bleak turn as Joe finally finds the gratification she seeks with a sadist named “K” (a chillingly effective Jamie Bell) who runs his little house of pain like a clinic. Women sit in a sterile reception area waiting to get called down an equally depressing hallway to his office, where he explains exactly what’s going to happen as if he’s going over their tax returns for the year. When he finally gets down to business, it’s brutal; von Trier makes us feel each lash of the whip on Joe’s increasingly bloodied and raw buttocks. But it’s also the path to orgasm for our heroine – and so addictive that she nearly precipitates a tragedy within her own family that von Trier followers will instantly associate with his earlier film Antichrist.
That’s enough for Jerome, and almost enough for the viewer. Remember, Joe is relating her story in flashbacks to the kind but eccentric bachelor (Stellan Skarsgard) who found her beaten and semi-conscious in an alley at the beginning of Nymphomaniac: Volume I. That’s still the spine of the second film: Joe repeatedly tells her rescuer what a bad person she is, while he interprets her stories through the arcane knowledge that he’s collected in lieu of relationships of his own. Now we finally get to see why Joe is so down on herself and it is not pretty in the slightest – she allows her cravings to destroy everything, including any semblance of a family life she might have had, not to mention legitimate work (she ends up being a debt collector for a shady Willem Dafoe and even mentors a protégé who ends up being more hard-hearted than Joe herself).
With Gainsbourg taking over for Martin and the meat of the rather rambling story finally coming into focus, Nymphomaniac: Volume II is much more compelling than its first half. There are still the weird variances in tone and von Trier’s all-but-childish need to shock his viewers, but at least we finally get to the center of Joe’s inner turmoil. She’s not exactly sympathetic, but at least we understand her to a better degree than we did in the first two hours. And somehow, von Trier takes her tragic tale and makes a feminist statement out of it with two great scenes near the end. In the first, a flashback, Joe attends a meeting for sex addicts but her testimony doesn’t quite go as expected, while in the second she casts judgment on a male-centric society that condemns her for her behavior but would probably cheer on any “bro” who was doing the same things.
I suspect that von Trier, trickster that he is, really does love women – he just takes borderline misogynist routes to deliver his feminist message. He never deliberately judges Joe but shows her for who and what she is and lets her – and us – make the ultimate judgments. That is what makes Volume II far better than Volume I, much of which played out as the arthouse equivalent of a Swedish schoolgirls-in-heat film from the early ‘70s. But in Volume II, we see how those animal urges crash into real life and adult responsibilities.
But just when I was ready to walk away from Nymphomaniac: Volume II with enough goodwill to make even the first half seem better than it was, the director undercuts himself with one last jolt – a parting shot of complete nihilism that negates everything we thought we knew about one character and leaves another out to dry. As much as I can enjoy von Trier’s love of blowing up audience expectations and figuratively slapping us in the face, I just couldn’t go with this ending because of its callous attitude toward the more mature and thoughtful scenes it followed. That last sequence is truly von Trier giving into his worst impulses – like a little boy chewing his food and then deciding to show it to us.
There’s no question, however, that this little boy (or perhaps enfant terrible) continues to deliver work worth discussing, even if the discussion centers on just how frustrating he can be. Like the not-so-great sex it puts on display, Nymphomaniac in its entirety provides many pleasures yet ultimately leaves us unfulfilled.