Sinister flashes occasionally popped up in Nymphomaniac: Volume I, the origin story of a sex addict named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who spent the duration playing mental tag with Seligman, a newfound confidant (Stellan Skarsgård). Still, the first chapter of Lars von Trier’s epic mostly kept things tender, leaning on poignant anecdotes about nature and memory that made Joe’s hazy remembrance a melancholy experience. Unfortunately, this foundation of calm proves itself to be a lie.
Not surprisingly, Volume II—which opens Friday, April 4, at Hillcrest Cinemas—devours any such romanticism almost immediately. Picking up where its predecessor left off, the brutal second chapter begins with not-so-happy couple Joe and Jerôme (Shia LeBeouf ) attempting (and failing) to live a normal existence. She’s given up sleeping with countless men, and he’s suffering mightily to satisfy her carnal urges. Their situation gets so warped that Joe loses the ability to feel any sort of sexual experience.
Repression is the root of evil in Volume II, starting with Joe’s haggard attempts to live a patriarchal life outside of her nymphomania.
Soon, the pain becomes so great that she begins flirting with risky ways to jumpstart her libido. One sequence titled “The Dangerous Men,” involving Joe and two African immigrants, proposes a potential reckoning, but in hilarious von Trier fashion, the entire sequence turns into an absurd red herring infused with gender critique.
Things get more serious when Joe opts for visits to K (Jaime Bell), a specialist in sadomasochism.
In one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes, the two embark on a “therapy” session that explores the complicated nature of control when it comes to sex. Like most of Nymphomaniac, these scenes are constructed to embrace the more banal movements and expressions. But Volume II offers far less in the way of comfort for the viewer, exploring how Joe’s cyclical patterns of self-destruction eventually transcend any chance of a happy ending.
Eventually, Joe abandons all sense of normalcy, leaving her husband and young child behind. “Society had no room for me, and I had no room for society,” she confesses to Seligman. The smash cut that connects this fateful transition is framed by a rousing Talking Heads track. It’s one of the few times von Trier seems to be having fun.
In Volume II’s latter half, Joe ends up working for a suspicious debt collector named L (Willem Dafoe). Here, violence replaces sex as Joe’s key opiate. Interestingly, this venture allows her to spawn a separate extortion business that becomes successful in its own right, leading Joe to befriend another young castoff named P (Mia Goth). This one fateful decision eventually leads Joe, beaten and bruised, into the arms of Seligman. Now we’ve come full circle. Or have we?
The key to understanding the tonal differences between Volume I and Volume II is how sexuality relates to both chapters. In the first, Joe’s experimentation reflects a naïve (if not guilt-ridden) view of the world, but one not without hope. As played by Stacy Martin, the character glows with a certain reverie for epiphany, even when it’s crushed by reality. Gainsbourg’s incarnation is far more devastating, exuding a specific numbness to whatever terrible proceedings are taking place. The older version of Joe is content to suffer, while the younger one endlessly hopes for a cure.
This jarring juxtaposition can be summed up in one of Joe’s most forceful comments: “I love my filthy, dirty lust.”
Or does she love the idea of being unafraid to express it to the world at large? Volume II’s harrowing final scene makes this question even more complicated, dismantling all the good will and humanity of the previous four hours in one daring act of self-preservation. What’s next is just more of the same.