Review: ‘Nymphomaniac: Volume II’ is only slightly darker than ‘I’

Charlotte Gainsbourg has a fun time in "Nymphomaniac: Volume II." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Charlotte Gainsbourg has a fun time in “Nymphomaniac: Volume II.”
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

‘Nymphomaniac: Volume II’
Director: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

There was no reason beyond the practical (and the moneymaking) to split Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac.” It’s true that “Volume II” is darker and less warm than “Volume I,” with a massive segue into sadomasochism. But it’s still warm, more or less nonjudgmental about its alleged deprivations and still extremely funny — or as funny as a project by Von Trier can be (which is, to be honest, very).

The funny bits are again mostly courtesy of Stellan Skarsgard, who picks up his role as Seligman, the aging bookworm who rescued sex addict Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) after a beating. As ever, he keeps interrupting her bonk-strewn life story with wacky digressions, pointing out, for instance, that the dreamlike image she thought was the Virgin Mary was probably the Whore of Babylon, complete with detailed explanation of who she was. But the fixation remains on Joe, whose tale gets a touch heavier this go.

If “Volume I” seemed almost light, especially considering it was a Lars Von Trier picture about sexaholics, “Volume II” ups the ante by having its hero — now an adult, with Gainsbourg taking over from young Stacy Martin in the flashbacks — encounter numbness in her nether regions, then rebounding with an addiction to whips and other unpleasantries.

The scenes of Joe being beaten aren’t “light,” but they’re not sensational either. Von Trier is doing many things in this massive canvas of a mega-picture, and one of them is to normalize a variety of sex acts. If the sex isn’t particularly sexy, nor is it ugly, in the manner of many art house coitus movies. Here, in “Nymphomaniac”’s alleged next level second half, he finds a weird tenderness in masochism, even as the perpetrator, known only as K (Jamie Bell), resists attempts at emotional connection. It even, in surely the most controversial scene, finds a sympathy for a man with pedophilic urges (Jean-Marc Barr), albeit one who’s never acted on them. “Sexuality is the most powerful force on Earth,” Joe says at one point.

Then again, she also declares, “For a human being, killing is the most natural thing in the world,” which is more up for debate. This is a serious film about sex, and about much more than that. But it’s also a joke. Von Trier wants you to take it both seriously and with a grain of salt, as the ramblings of a provocateur who sometimes says things only to get a rise. (For example, comparing himself to Hitler.)

The only way to interpret the film’s ending — that is, without getting angry — is as a punchline. But it’s also part of him working through his own limitations, as an artist and as a person. He’s up front about his failings. He wants “Nymphomaniac” to be a feminist work, but he understands that it’s feminism coming from a man, and a man often charged with its opposite — with enjoying seeing the suffering of women, even as he claims respect. It’s a two-faced picture, having its cake and eating it too. And it winds up suggesting that the best way to take in a Lars Von Trier film is to never take it too seriously. Then again, let down your guard and you’ll get spanked.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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