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Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (2014)

Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (2014)

Directed by: Lars von Trier

Premise: The second of two movies in which a woman recalls her life, focusing on her impulsive sexuality.

What Works: Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2 continues much of what worked about Volume 1. Picking up the story where the first part left off, Volume 2 enriches the themes and storylines. Viewers who thought the film could not get more explicit are in for a surprise as Volume 2 goes in even more extreme directions. However, like the first half, the sexuality of the movie is deserved and exists for more than shock value. It also serves to pivot the story to deeper and more challenging places. Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 was about a woman with an insatiable sexual appetite and in the course of the story she went from achieving personal and even spiritual awakening through her sexuality to eventually reaching an impasse in which her sexual desire had become a source of torment. Nymphomaniac: Volume 2 is about the character searching for a new high and the lengths to which she will go to achieve it. After the wild exploits of Volume 1, the character settles down into domesticity but is unsatisfied. In what are Nymphomaniac’s most difficult sequences, the title character turns to the BDSM lifestyle, although it is an unhealthy form of that kind of relationship. The punishments she incurs and the dysfunctional relationship she develops pivots the story into an exploration of the way in which sexuality may create bonds and barriers between people. Nymphomaniac’s conclusions about relationships are not especially cheerful or humanistic but they are consistent with the momentum of the movie and there is a lot of fascinatingly politically incorrect ideas in the film about gender, the relationship between sexes, and women’s sexuality.

What Doesn’t: One important thing to understand about Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2 is that this is not a sequel but the second half of a single film. Volume 2 picks up literally where the first half left off with no introduction or breathing room to reacquaint the viewer with the characters and storylines so it is best watched immediately (or at least shortly) after screening Volume 1. The second half is as explicit, if not more, than the first half but its story is less fluid and not quite as a strong. The second half continues with the title character, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, telling her story and occasionally bantering with the listener played by Stellan Skarsgård. In Volume 2 the conversations between the characters played by Gainsbourg and Skarsgård are less naturalistic and become much more didactic, with filmmaker Lars von Trier setting his protagonist on rants that aren’t always directly related to the story or overstate the subtext. That overemphasis occurs throughout the flashbacks as well with the increased use of non-diegetic visuals that spell out the meaning of the scenes. A major shift occurs in the casting of the second half, as Stacy Martin, who played the main character throughout Volume 1 and in the opening of Volume 2 is eventually replaced by Gainsbourg as the older version of the character. The transition between Martin and Gainsbourg is abrupt and the filmmakers don’t use makeup or other tools to transform Martin’s appearance. The plotting of Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2 is also much spottier than in the first installment. There are an awful lot of coincidences, especially when the title character’s first love, played first by Shia LaBeouf and later by Michael Pas, reappears again and again in the course of the story. However, it is clear that the filmmakers are deliberately using this implausibility to question the reliability of the narrator, and since it has that other function these incredulities are passable.

Bottom Line: Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2 is not quite as strong as the first installment. However the movie can only be understood as a single film in two parts and taken together, Lars von Trier has made a sexual epic that is likely to stand with movies like I Am Curious and Last Tango in Paris.

Episode: #484 (March 30, 2014)