Mar 20, 2014

Review: "Nymphomaniac: Volume II" Concludes a Fascinatingly Bleak and Beautiful Look at Sex Addiction

Charlotte Gainsbourg
With the closing note of director Lars von Trier's Nymphomanic: Volume I, the protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) told her lover Jerome (Shia LeBouf) that she had lost her sexual feeling. With the death of her father (Christian Slater) and a crescendo of tragedies ending the two part sexual epic, there was questions on where the provocateur's last two hours would go. With limitless potential, the film had a lot of challenge to get from the young Joe (Stacy Martin) to a bludgeoned woman lying in the middle of the street. How did she get there? Much like an average von Trier film, the remaining half doesn't disappoint in turning desire into pain and making for one of the most challenging, profoundly disturbing looks into sex that have been committed to screen.
Joe and Jerome's story has a tragic ending, as they fall out of love while Joe finds a way to continue her lustful ways. With her man convinced that she was never meant to be a mother, she only has a choice but to turn to sex. Without a lover and any personal concerns, the sex that constitutes most of Volume II is about the period after things become bleak while still needing satisfaction. It is treated as a necessity and while gloriously shot with beautiful cinematography, it becomes cringe-worthy depending on the audience's level of tolerance for sadomasochism and more brutal kinks. 
Still, everything manages to serve a purpose as it all relates back to Joe. We understand her conflicts along the way, especially as she tries to compensate for her decaying social life. As with Volume I, the biggest appeal of the film is the implicit comedy that comes from the conversations between Joe and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) that turns the conversation into discussion of religious events and even stock footage of ducks quacking. The balance between grotesque misery and inspired, sly remarks are the film's biggest success and makes the prudish Seligman into a fascinating character. He is curious, nonthreatening, and unable to see sex as hormonal. He sees it as a pattern and finds parallels in sexuality and mathematics. Joe is unashamed of her past, no matter how miserable it was, and that adds emotional weight to the overall experience.
There are also moments in the second half that feel like they exist to break taboos. This is specifically in reference to a scene involving a pedophile. On its surface level, it is as disgusting as the subject suggests. Going deeper, there's psychology and misunderstanding that builds the character into something of sympathetic. This scene encapsulates everything that the film stands for. It doesn't use sex to provoke attraction. It is used to tell a story of a deeply flawed person who isn't ashamed for being a deviant. It explains how she became that way and by the end of the film, there isn't a sense that the audience should be disgusted, but care about how she managed to remain strong through it all.
It may be graphic and disturbing, but it is one of the most accurate depiction of an addiction that is often not considered a problem. While drugs or alcohol remain easier topics to discuss, the unrelenting nature of Nymphomaniac: Volume II does a phenomenal job in shedding taboos while being dedicated to story. Despite being bleak, it also manages to have moments of personality and humor. It is as complicated as many of the sexual acts in the film, but von Trier's creation is a well-crafted, multiple chapter look at a life unlike what we have seen. 
Some may consider the film's four hour running time to be a little tiresome, but it actually uses every minute effectively. While Volume I is hard to watch without needing closure, Volume II lives up to the promise of the story, which only goes darker and more graphic. It slowly coaxes us into the perversion, and fleshes out everything until nothing is missing. With a great lead performance by Gainsbourg, this is a controversial film that may be repulsive, but that is part of its appeal. Sex isn't supposed to always be wonderful. It is supposed to occasionally be strange, painful, or just done for addiction.
Most of all, it makes it feel artistic in between the moments of gratuitous nudity. With a delightfully eclectic soundtrack that includes Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" being played over pictures of a burning car, the film is just as much about unraveling the cryptic puzzle as it is telling a story. With the supporting cast continuing to grow, including a great performance by Joe's adopted hooker/mentor P (Mia Goth), the films ends just as the film started: beaten in an alley. How she got there however is rather depressing. 
Even then, all of the pieces line up in an almost perfect way. The film is a tough dedication for four hours, but is essentially worth it for those that can stomach it. With great performances, spurts of humor, and profound analogies of sex in everyday life, this is a film that captures sexual addiction without the sympathetic angle and instead goes for honesty. It is refreshing and expansive in its exploration of its protagonist's 50 years of addiction. It may be ongoing and she may struggle to feel that satisfaction, but that doesn't mean that she is nonetheless a compelling character who has seen her shares of strange, perverse fantasies that we are glad to be exploited to.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

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