The full version of Nymphomaniac is four hours long, and distributors in the United States charged two separate admissions to address the issue of its length (they also doubled the box office returns, presumably). Now that I’ve seen the full film, I’m not so sure the split is necessary. Nymphomaniac is an engaging, weirdly optimistic film about a woman whose sexuality challenges convention. It is episodic and full of meta-analysis, and writer/director Lars Von Trier’s commitment to coincidence is reminiscent of literature. While the final scene is shocking, it is part of a fierce critique of patriarchy.
Now that Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), Von Trier is able to jump ahead with his story. Vol. 2 is mainly about Joe’s attempt and subsequent failure with domestic tranquility, and what happens when she lives outside traditional social mores. Joe and Jerôme have a child, yet her inability for sexual pleasure coincides with a distance from him; she tells her savior Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) she does not feel maternal. At night she leaves her child for sessions with K (Jamie Bell), a sadistic fetishist who prefers whipping/dominating women over sexual intercourse. His rules are terrifying and firm, but he’s not an evil man, exactly. He just knows what he wants, which turns on Joe to the point where she cannot live with her partner and child anymore. She leaves her family and tries sexual addiction therapy, only to realize her perversion is different and exceptional.
To be honest, a lot of what I admire about Vol. 2 is already in my review of Vol. 1, so here I’ll focus on what’s new and different. Now that Joe is an adult, her sexual experiments include an element of confidence and danger, side by side. In addition to the first scene with K, which unfolds with clinical precision, Joe attempts a sexual encounter with two African men who cannot speak English. She discovers that helplessness is a turn-on, and her willingness to be a victim (of sorts) gives her an acute understanding of human nature. Von Trier criticizes traditional gender roles, as well as the idea that a woman should not control her sexuality, and complicates the idea with scenes of her in bondage. With careful cuts and lingering pauses, Joe’s mature sexual encounters hinge on unspoken chemistry, and there’s eroticism even when her ass is beaten bloody (as noted in my earlier review, the nudity is frequent but never shocking).
The other intriguing thing about Vol. 2 is the evolution of Seligman. He confesses he’s a virgin and asexual, then notes that this lack of experience means he can listen to Joe’s story without bias. This frees her a little, to the point where she points out when Seligman’s (frequent) digressions do little to help the story. Another sneaky thing starts to happen: Seligman moves from an objective listener to just another brutish man. This happens after Joe tells a story about her sympathy for a pedophile: he’s unwilling to consider her behavior, while she speaks plainly about perversion with empathy. By standing outside tradition, Joe instinctively gravitates toward the unhappy and broken. The only downside is that her old life sometimes intersects with her new one, which can have brutal consequences. Joe is a person first and nymphomaniac second, so when she experiences feelings like regret and envy, it cuts deeper because she’s alone in a way that few can fathom.
Between Nymphomaniac and Melancholia, Von Trier has found counterintuitive ways to tell stories about empowered women. As Kirsten Dunst’s character stands before oblivion in Melancholia, she achieves courage in the classic Ernest Hemingway definition, while the others recoil in fear. That same grace is in Nymphomaniac, yet it’s more challenging since it revolves around a woman who would rather be defiant about her sexuality than conform toward a world that denies her nature. Von Trier is cruel with his ending: after a moment’s peace, he denies Joe any camaraderie and shows her the true cost to her exceptionalism. At least the scene is funny in a macabre way, and it gives Joe the tools to move from victimhood toward genuine, stark individuality. This is about as heart-warming as Von Trier is ever going to get.