It might not be entirely fair to judge the two volumes of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac separately, since they were produced and originally planned as a single entity. But whether by design or by chance, Volume I and Volume II are split in a way that shows obvious contrasts, and while their story isn’t complete until the end of Volume II, many of the heady pleasures of Volume I stand a little better on their own.
Volume II picks up right where Volume I left off, as the title character, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is in the middle of telling her life story to avuncular academic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). She’s just gotten to the point at which she’s reunited with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), the love of her life, and yet just at the moment of her greatest romantic satisfaction, she’s completely lost the ability to feel sexual pleasure. While Volume I was often playful and funny, Volume II is defined by Joe’s increasingly desperate quest for sensation, one that takes her into seedy, dangerous territory. Stacy Martin, who played the young Joe in all of Volume I’s flashbacks, disappears about 20 minutes into Volume II, replaced by Gainsbourg as the flashbacks get closer to the present day, and while Gainsbourg is good at playing the storyteller, she’s not as compelling in the sexually charged, often explicit narrative.
Gainsbourg’s grimmer performance goes along with Joe’s grim quest, which first takes her into the world of sadomasochism, where she endures erotic abuse at the hands of a stoic man known only as K (Jamie Bell). By this point, Joe and Jerôme have had a child, and one of the movie’s most uncomfortable scenes involves Joe leaving her infant son at home alone, potentially in great danger, as she goes on her compulsive search for any kind of sensation.
Later, after breaking up with Jerôme and losing custody of her son (who’s never seen or mentioned again), Joe ends up as the enforcer for a loan shark (Willem Dafoe), using her extensive knowledge of men’s sexual proclivities to manipulate and intimidate them into paying their debts. Her relationship with a shy protégé known as P (Mia Goth) provides the movie’s most tender moments, but even that seemingly sweet connection eventually turns sour.
Throughout, Seligman becomes progressively more irritated with Joe’s long-winded story, and his own contributions this time around are less germane (“I think this was one of your weakest digressions,” Joe tells him at one point). If, as some have speculated, Joe represents von Trier and Seligman represents his critics, then Volume II is about the relationship between filmmaker and audience breaking down, as the story fails to live up to expectations. But just because it’s less immediately entertaining doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating in other ways, and the story in Volume II shows how Joe’s hedonism can be a reflection of her more self-destructive impulses, and how thin the line can be between pleasure and compulsion. The movie ends with a punch line that undercuts the seemingly sympathetic relationship between Seligman and Joe, capping the entire two-part tale with a sort of cheap, sick joke. Von Trier pulls his audience along on this bold, giddy, often disturbing journey, then finishes by tearing it all down in a single moment.