*** (out of four)
This is a rule, not a suggestion: If you want to see “Nymphomaniac Vol. II,” first you have to see “Nymphomaniac Vol. I.” It’s not like skipping the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and picking up with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.”
I immediately regret that last title in the context of this review. Sorry.
No, to take in the final half of writer/director Lars von Trier’s four-hour exploration of unyielding desire, you must see the setup: when Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) begins her story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the man who finds her beaten and brings to safety, discussing years of sexual promiscuity (played as a younger woman by Stacy Martin) with total detachment. With “Vol. I” lacking many consequences, it was easy to assume “Vol. II” would be a proverbial collision of you-know-what and a fan. Yet von Trier (“Melancholia”), in somewhat of a shift in approach, refuses to wag his finger. He de-stigmatizes a certain kind of free sexual behavior without sugarcoating it.
In the continuing, frequently explicit flashback of “Vol. II,” Joe (now mostly played by Gainsbourg) has lost all sexual sensation and will do whatever it takes to wake herself up. (If you shudder at the use of the C-word, or are looking for a turn-on, do not see “Nymphomaniac.”) This leads her to K (Jamie Bell), who runs a bizarre, violent operation during which he calls Joe “Fido” and does things to her that cannot be described in this publication. I have not even mentioned an earlier scene involving a rather unsanitary use of spoons.
Joe separates from Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and ignores her young child in search of rejuvenated pleasure, but she’s not ashamed. With “Nymphomaniac,” von Trier avoids endorsing the conventional morality that pushes natural, confusing human instincts aside. He does lazily utilize Seligman’s sometimes-dry analysis (at one point in “Vol. II” Joe tells him, “I think this was one of your weakest digressions”) and innocent chattiness to allow for a neutral reaction to Joe’s long, polarizing story. But the filmmaker also takes a non-judgmental look at physical needs and distinguishes between various forms of understanding and control. There are many ways to prey on others, he seems to say.
“Vol. II” is disturbing. It is not always convincing. But it’s hard not to be intrigued by this depiction of the constant war between mind and body, and a society that’s uneasy when the body wins.
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