In Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the titular sex enthusiast, tells her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the erudite man who found her beaten and unconscious in an alley. He meets nearly each of her sexual anecdotes with an immediate scholarly metaphor. It’s absurd and pretentious and very von Trier-ian, and if it doesn’t make you hate the film, it will make you laugh.
This approach continues straightaway in Vol. 2. Joe is describing an incident, diagnosed as an seizure, when she was 12: She was lying in a field on a sunny day when she suddenly began to levitate, hallucinate, and orgasm spontaneously. Her hallucinations were of two women. Seligman says of the one, “It must have been Valeria Messalina...the most notorious nymphomaniac in history.” The other, he says, “was no one else but the great Whore of Babylon.” The ho was sitting on a bull, which is appropriate, because this early conversation leaves you thinking that Vol. 2 is going to be full of it, too.
But then Joe goes back to where Vol. 1 left off, with her younger self (Stacy Martin) losing all sexual feeling and calling it “the worst thing that’s happened to me.” We see her furiously masturbating and whipping a wet towel (?) between her legs. (Desperate times and all, I suppose.)
Seligman: “This is nothing less than Zeno’s Paradox. You are Achilles! And the tortoise is the orgasm!”
Joe: “Come on.”
Why von Trier didn’t have Joe call Seligman out on his bogus allegories from the start instead of directing Gainsbourg to listen to them with seemingly sincere curiosity is a curiosity in itself. Vol. 2 reveals the reason Seligman reacts the way he does, and it initially makes the slim, slim chance that he and Joe met in the first place a too-convenient launching point for the story, when the framing already felt unacceptably contrived in Vol. 1. But you gradually acclimate to the film’s setup, and as far as forced plot turns go, well, you regularly see much lazier ones in mainstream fare. At least this epic narrative is unique—if often gratuitous in its envelope-pushing—and the development allows Skarsgård to prove his character is human and not a walking library. Seligman is mournful when he reveals himself instead of his knowledge, and his idiosyncrasies are memorable.
Vol. 2 may also have illogical moments, such as a tragedy-inviting balcony door left open in the winter and a teenage girl who befriends the adult Joe and lets way too much time go by before asking, “Who are you, and why the hell did you suddenly start appearing at my basketball games?” Von Trier also repeats himself, taking the central conceit of 1996’s Breaking the Waves—a husband encouraging his wife to sleep with other men—and using it as a pivotal point here.
Overall, though, Vol. 2 is vastly more engrossing (and easier to take seriously) than Vol 1. There’s still not a whole lot of titillation despite all the nudity. In fact, at times it’s flat-out clinical, with von Trier so frequently closing in on Joe’s clitoris, ass, and pubic hair it could be mistaken for a sex-ed film. When Joe asks, via interpreter, a non-English-speaking African man to fuck her, he brings along a friend with whom he ends up arguing, and the director lets the ever-goddamn-moving camera casually slip downward—oops!—so the men’s sizable erections are in full view. You’ll practically be able to ID these penises in a lineup by the end of the scene.
Yet the Clash of the Hard-Ons is funny, whereas the alleged humor was more difficult to discern in the first film. Another sequence with younger Joe and Jerome (Shia LaBeouf, still awful), the man she falls in love with, is downright playful. Joe’s experiences are also more varied this time around: She’s mentored by a man (Willem Dafoe) who suggests a way to turn her distinct talents into a debt-collection business and dabbles in masochism with a professional known only as K (Jamie Bell, arguably and ironically the first time he isn’t irritating). She waits along with other seemingly self-hating women to see K, who gives her the wince-inducing nickname “Fido.” Of course, the moniker is the least brutal aspect of their transactions. Bell’s K is fascinating, however: very precise and by-the-rules, soft-spoken despite the violence and humiliation he inflicts, eye contact constantly wavering. “Your ass is not high enough,” he declares after tying up Joe during their first meeting and evaluating his work. He also nonchalantly checks how wet she is. “I don’t think we can do this today.”
Von Trier also lets Joe offer more varied conversation than, to quote Reservoir Dogs, “Dick dick dick dick dick dick dick.” When Seligman chastises her for saying “negro,” she launches into a mini-rant about how political correctness reflects a cowardly society that weakens democracy by banning words instead of truly furthering civil rights. (Joe adds that she believes most people are too stupid for a democratic government, at which point I kinda wanted to cheer.) They discuss pedophilia, with Seligman dumbfounded by Joe’s sympathy for one of her clients whom she discerns—using an unlikely but unquestionably Joe-esque method—has fantasies of molesting children but has never acted on them. (Her certainty in the latter isn’t explained, but it’s little more than an annoyance.) “Think about their suffering,” she says of such men. Yes, her perspective will test the understanding of even the most empathetic, but it may not be an unusual thought for the sex-addicted.
Relatedly, Vol. 1 strongly telegraphs an arc that could explain Joe’s behavior—it’s a clichéd one, and when Vol. 2 doesn’t go in that direction, it’s a relief. It’s also to von Trier’s credit (am I actually writing this?) that he has Seligman bring up the common double standard applied to sexually promiscuous men versus similar women. Men are high-fived, women shamed. The discussion isn’t deep, but considering Joe’s insistence at the beginning of Vol 1. that she’s a bad person, not addressing it at all would be negligent. The final scene takes place in the dark and is technically open-ended, though the action that precedes it leaves one scenario more likely. And it might actually be the most sensational scene of either film. Earlier, when Seligman can’t stop showing off his big brain, he tells the backstory of a particular kind of knot used in rock-climbing—and, in this case, S&M play. “I think this was one of your weakest digressions,” Joe says. When you watch Nymphomaniac Vol. 1, you may think the same when ranking it among von Trier’s repertoire. But then he spins it around in Vol. 2—still a cinematic bastard, but this time for conning you into despising what ends up being a rather brilliant film.