It doesn’t take long for the pieces to fall into place once Nymphomaniac Volume 2 gets going. Two scant weeks after the first two hours of Lars Von Trier’s opus was unleashed on video on demand, its second half has come to join the party. As this was a four hour film cut in two by studio intervention instead of by design (i.e. it was cut into two parts instead of inherently designed as two separate movies like, say, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows parts 1 and 2), the action picks up immediately right after it left off, which was admittedly a pretty big cliffhanger. With the revelation that Joe (Stacy Martin in flashback, though she soon cedes the screen to Charlotte Gainsbourg in the flashbacks as well) has abruptly lost all feeling in her sex organs while still shacking up with Jerome (Shia Lebeouf at the time). It’s a torturous situation for Joe, as her nymphomania is very much the product of her mind and thus still a driving force in her life, but she cannot gain any of the physical satisfaction or release she could rely on previously. It’s the type of turn that perfectly capped the first volume and allowed for a pretty strong cliffhanger, and much of the early comings and goings of volume two tracks Joe as she tries to find something that can give her the release she needs. The child she has with Jerome doesn’t help. Constantly having sex doesn’t help. Nothing, it seems, helps.
For the first film and much of the beginning of the second, Joe’s sexual appetite is ravenous, but her actual sex life is relatively straightforward. She has a lot of sex, but hasn’t particularly delved into the darker recesses of sex in the modern world. This is the turn in both Joe and the film, and begins to give a sense of how the Joe of young could find herself molding into the Joe of present, still carrying on her conversation with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) in the present day. She is brought into the world of sado-masochism by K (Jamie Bell), whose domination does reawaken her sense of pleasure, but at the cost of cultivating a streak of violence and cynicism that soon grows out of control. The second half of the film (really the last quarter of the four hours) finds Joe fully embracing the darker side of the world, stoked on by L (Willem Dafoe), a sort of loan shark to the extreme, by taking her in as one of his enforcers. Joe shows a specific flair for psychological violence and torture, a useful asset for ensuring L’s male clients pay their debts. Despite her success, L requires her to find an apprentice to take over her role in the business, and while Joe relents, she eventually finds a foil in P (newcomer Mia Goth), and their destructive relationship sends Joe on a crash course with her current self.
It should follow logically, but much of the whimsy of Nymphomaniac Volume 1 has receded into the background; there are not nearly as many humorous digressions regarding fishing or Seligman’s interjections. Those interjections are still there, but take on a different tone to match with Joe’s own declension into the woman she has become. This is one of the few ways that the choice to split the films in two works decently well, as there is a clear tonal difference between the youthful exuberance of Volume 1 and the tragedies of Volume 2. This doesn’t make Volume 2 better or worse than Volume 1 (though it still feels like a better film due to its general lack of exposition and having a more satisfying ending, which is almost always the case with multiple part films), simply different. Von Trier certainly isn’t beyond injecting a bit of his trademark absurdity (the musical cue of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” is a wonderful little explosion of levity amid the darkness), but he also knows when to step back and allow the story to carry its own weight.
Nymphomaniac Volume 2 does a wonderful job of pulling together the disparate threads of its first part. The themes crystallize in the way they should, and are bolstered by strong performances across the board. Von Trier’s camera remains vibrant even when shooting the mundane, but it’s the way Joe’s character evolves that makes this second half (and by extension the entire four hour experience) a triumph. The cornerstone scene, wherein Joe finds herself forced to go to a sex addiction group therapy session in wonderful in the way it calls back to young Joe’s college sexual liberation group, and the way it so clearly hammers home that Joe is thoroughly in denial about her life and her choices. Joe’s abject refusal to abandon the term nymphomania in favor of sex addiction before completely destroying the psyches of all others in the session is a clear cry for help, but also a fervent defense of her own agency as a person in the face of her lack of control over her addiction. And that’s really what draws her and Seligman together. They are both in a state of continued sexual denial of their true selves, and by the film’s end, those attitudes take us to a place only Von Trier could have created.
For all of its bluster and controversy, Nymphomaniac at its core is a deep and satisfying character piece about how people cope with addictions and identity disorders. The Joe who narrates the film is a fractured human who has lost everything she could even consider dear, and her life in flashback flows naturally to that point. Von Trier refuses to cut corners (hence the four hour run time, which seems like the perfect length and makes the eventual 5.5 hour cut potentially worrisome), and has the freedom and time to paint a complete picture, leaving no stone unturned. Nymphomaniac should definitely be viewed as one complete whole, but it worked quite well drawn out over two weeks. With all of his predilections in full force, Von Trier may have created his own crazy version of a masterpiece. This is a must watch.