Nymphomaniac: Vol. II is the second half of the all-night conversation between titular heroine Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and interpreter/partial audience surrogate Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) that began shortly after Seligman found Joe's battered body in an alley at the start of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I. Among other things, the rest of Lars von Trier's four-hour opus provides a measure of closure. But it's also darker and uglier than its restless, dryly funny predecessor.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I wasn't really about sex; it was about what we talk about when we talk about sex, although the "we" — men? women? intellectuals? artists? voyeurs? psychos? — remained elusive. Despite its early slapstick three-way and even more close-ups of male and female genitalia, Vol. II isn't really about sex, either. If Vol. I was a movie about discovery and youth, then Vol. II is a movie about routine and adulthood. For von Trier, that means it's almost by necessity a movie about pain and suffering.
Anhedonia, or the inability to inexperience pleasure, is Joe's main problem throughout most of Vol. II. The way she tells it, her existence becomes conventional and meaningless as she grows older. She marries Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), the man who took her virginity, and together they have a child. But somewhere along the way she loses her ability to experience any sexual pleasure; her last words in Vol. I are "I can't feel anything." After some painful, nearly pathological self-abuse, she begins to seek out more extreme forms of physical stimulation.
This need leads Joe into some dark places. One of the most frightening scenes in Vol. II is Joe's initial encounter with K (Jamie Bell), a polite, chiseled sadist who's set up shop in what looks like an abandoned hospital. Their first session together is a queasy mixture of BDSM, genteel propriety, and cold-eyed cruelty — as K states, with him there is no safe word. As he prepares to do whatever he's going to do to her, K repeatedly whispers "take it easy" to Joe while he tightens the straps and ropes that render her more or less immobile. (Von Trier further increases Joe's — and the viewer's — fear and uncertainty by shooting her in tighter and tighter close-ups.) The unflinching brutality of K's actions is undercut by the politeness of the post-whipping pleasantries. ("Thank you." "You're welcome.") His Christmas gift to her is a cat o' nine tails.
As young Joe, Stacy Martin was a pretty, vacant perfect human prop who intensified the clinical chilliness inherent in Vol. I's many sex scenes. But Gainsbourg, who finally starts to play herself in flashbacks about 20 minutes into Vol. II, is something else entirely. She's a fearless performer whose talents evoke all kinds of weird stuff. How weird? Well, it's almost a relief when she stops pursuing sex and begins a life of crime.
Like its companion piece, Nymphomaniac: Vol. II resists simple categorization. It's a movie to endure first and figure out afterward. But it's nonetheless essential viewing of a sort. And its final scene is as pitiless (and, some might say, inevitable) as a sunrise.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
Opens Friday, May 2nd