Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2, the second “half” of Lars von Trier’s confessional epic, is a letdown for a few reasons – its increasingly self-defeating sense of humor and elevated unpleasantness among them. What ultimately turned me off, though, is something surprising considering this is a graphic tale of sexual exploits: the movie’s punishing puritanism.
Let’s start with that sense of humor. There were flashes of it in Vol. 1, which is structured around a conversation between Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the woman of the title, and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a kind and gentle older man who takes her in after finding her bloody and beaten in the alley. She begins to recount her sexual experiences since childhood (Stacy Martin plays the younger Joe), and the flashback scenes are interspersed with Joe and Seligman’s dryly funny philosophical ruminations on what it all means. (He’s fond of evoking metaphors involving everything from fly fishing to Bach.)
Vol. 2 deflates any sincere effort to find meaning in the story it’s telling.
In Vol. 2, these talks become even more abstract; at one point Seligman indulges in a comparative history of the Eastern and Western Christian church. In the process, the comedic tone curdles. Instead of being amusing, it becomes derisive. Joe dismisses Seligman’s theorizing as “mathematical crap” and tells him at one point, “I think this was one of your weakest digressions.” It’s funny – as is the ludicrously framed shot of Joe’s expressionless face as two naked men argue in front of her – but both instances are also distancing. As it goes on, Vol. 2 deflates any sincere effort to find meaning in the story it’s telling. The movie becomes a joke on the audience, and in the process folds in on itself.
More off-putting is the puritanical streak that eventually comes to dominate the film. Vol. 1 went to great lengths to appear to be nonjudgmental of Joe; when she speaks of guilt to Seligman, he brushes it off as a deception of religion. Yet as Vol. 2 churns on, the movie expresses less interest in empathizing with Joe and more interest in punishing her. (Tellingly, this is the same fate that awaited the sexually volatile character played by Gainsbourg in von Trier’s Antichrist.) Pain – mental and physical – dominates the latter half of the film, both self-inflicted by Joe and visited upon her by others. The climax, which reveals how Joe ended up in that alley, is a series of increasingly awful humiliations. Later, after Joe declares that she will change her ways, she suffers a final assault. That stinks of puritanism to me.
The argument could be made that an alternative, feminist version of Nymphomaniac exists along this movie’s edges, in which Joe is a figure of self-determination being literally beaten down by a hypocritical, patriarchal society. Yet considering Seligman – who is increasingly portrayed as a clown – hints at this reading himself, it’s difficult for me to take such an interpretation seriously. Whatever Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2 flirts with, jokes about or tangentially suggests, here’s what it says most loudly: someone like Joe isn’t worthy of our understanding, only punishment.