Lars Von Trier’s “Nymph()maniac” was made as one movie and, despite its maker’s later decision to serve it up in two parts, was surely meant to be seen as one movie. Someday, on DVD or in whatever holo-chamber we’ll be experiencing our media, that’s how audiences will come to it: as a four-hour exploration of where listening only to your body’s desires takes you. Since this is Von Trier, that’s mostly down.
“Nymph()maniac: Vol. II” arrives in theaters today after an on-demand run and shortly upon the heels of “Vol. I”; it takes up the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she passes from youth (where she’s still played by Stacy Martin for a few scenes) into a randy and increasingly distraught adulthood. The first film ended with Joe’s marriage to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and subsequent discovery that she had lost all sexual sensation. The new film concerns her increasingly frenzied attempts to get it back.
If “Vol. I” was a libertine’s journey, “II” becomes a case history out of Krafft-Ebing’s “Psychopathia Sexualis,” with Joe drawn to pain as a replacement for the pleasure she no longer experiences. As ever, Von Trier keeps popping casting surprises on us, and when Joe wanders into the waiting room of a discreet S&M practitioner, who should emerge but Jamie Bell, that nice boy from “Billy Elliot.” Not so nice anymore, as “L” coolly straps the heroine to a couch with duct tape and complicated knots and spanks her bloody. There’s no sex and no safe word, and the most appalling detail about these visits is the line of bourgeois women waiting silently outside for their turn.
“Nymph()maniac,” taken in its entirety, implies that this is what results when our natural animal urges are constrained by guilt, social duty, notions of romantic love. Von Trier isn’t saying it’s a shame this happens; he’s just saying shame happens, and here’s an illustratively extreme example of how. Joe comes up hard against marriage, motherhood, group therapy, God, the absence of God, the disapproval of employers, and much, much more, and all she knows is that the light shining from between her legs is a gift neither she nor anyone else can handle. Early in “Vol. II,” Von Trier offers us a Blakean vision of the adolescent Joe floating above a landscape in a state somewhere between spontaneous orgasm and divine fit. Sexual bliss is our Eden, and how far we have fallen.
Not surprisingly, religion has a larger place in this half of the tale, although when Joe is visited by spectral messengers, they tend to be figures like the Whore of Babylon. As before, the gray, neutral Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) serves as the heroine’s sounding board and interpreter of maladies, although his digressions seem more far-fetched this time around. He has a secret, and then a secret below that; if the first fits into place with a satisfying click, the second seems more like one of Von Trier’s glib black jokes. Misery loves company, and no one loves both more than this director.
But secrets are what you get when desires are taboo, even the ones that should be. In one of the most profoundly unsettling sequences in “Nymph()maniac: Vol. II,” Joe — by now working as a “debt collector” (i.e., extortionist) for the calmly sinister K (Willem Dafoe) — tries to get a placid victim (Jean-Marc Barr) to cough up his payment. She cycles through a variety of sexual anecdotes, a predatory Scheherazade, until she locates the kink he can’t admit even to himself. The most disturbing part of the scene is its tenderness.
“Vol. II” is less focused than “Vol. I” — less funny, too, although there are a few dank laughs — and you feel Von Trier’s inspiration and energy start to flag during the final laps. The heroine becomes a mentor to P (Mia Goth), a pouty teenage girl from a troubled background, and the twist is that she ends up doing to Joe what Joe has done to everyone else. By this point, “Nymph()maniac” is starting to resemble a deranged Joan Crawford movie. That’s both redundant and not necessarily a bad thing.
The ending, too, feels more theoretical than dramatized, as if Von Trier’s ideas had outstripped his imagination or he had realized that movies have to end sometime. Still, “Nymph()maniac” — both of them or all of it or whatever — is worth seeking out, for its willingness to dive into our darkest contradictions and for Gainsbourg’s raw, sorrowful performance. If it’s true that Von Trier likes to torture his actors, it’s mostly because he knows how good we are at torturing ourselves.