Just as abruptly as it ended, Nymphomaniac begins anew, thrusting audiences back into the de-eroticized erotic exploits of its heroine. But while the cut-to-black punctuation of Volume I seemed totally arbitrary, as though editors had simply cleaved Lars Von Trier’s four-hour opus at the midway mark, Volume II reveals that there may be some rhyme and reason to the split after all. Having followed her libido wherever it took her, sex addict Joe (Stacy Martin, in the flashback scenes) discovers that her capacity for climax has suddenly short-circuited. With that development, which arrives mere minutes into this final installment, Von Trier announces that the uncharacteristically lighthearted nature of the first half was but a prelude to the characteristic unpleasantness of the second. Pleasure will soon be replaced by pain, satisfaction by dissatisfaction. Once Charlotte Gainsbourg, taking over for Martin, leans over the edge of a sofa, her exposed rear ripe for the lashing, Nymphomaniac has begun to remind its audience that its Danish director also made Dogville and Antichrist.
Speaking of divisions, there exists a comparably dramatic split in Von Trier’s entire body of work—a shift from the stylish genre entertainment of the early Europa trilogy to the more provocative, less flamboyant stuff he started churning out afterwards. So when, in Volume II, Joe’s husband (Shia LaBeouf) urges her to seek gratification outside of their marriage, the initiated will experience what addicts (or Jules from Pulp Fiction) could refer to as a “moment of clarity.” Wasn’t that also the plot of Breaking The Waves, Von Trier’s revered 1996 breakthrough? Taken as a whole, with volumes one and two in concert, Nymphomaniac looks like nothing less than a career overview, touring each era of the director’s development.
There were echoes all throughout the first installment, many of them environmental. A scene on a passenger train evoked Europa, a scene in a hospital recalled The Kingdom, and a few fleeting moments in an office brought to mind The Boss Of It All. What was Joe’s collective of anti-bourgeoisie fornicators, with their manifesto of conduct, but a surrogate for the idiots of The Idiots—not to mention a stand-in for the Dogme 95 movement itself? Having tackled the lighter side of Lars, Volume II digs into the heavier provocations. Joe’s journeys lead her to an S&M disciplinarian (Jamie Bell), a calculating artist-of-pain whose clinical approach to his craft—“blocking” her on that aforementioned couch—makes him a clear proxy for the tough-on-his-actresses Von Trier. (Joe, roped up and nicknamed “Fido,” is basically doubling for Nicole Kidman in Dogville.) When Joe’s son approaches a window, the snow falling hard and the music rising to a swell, plenty will think of Antichrist’s opening scene. The presence of Willem Dafoe, as a shady business associate, furthers that impression.
Given the plethora of callbacks—Melancholia and Manderlay also get visually referenced—it seems more than fair to see the framing-device conversation between Gainsbourg’s Joe and Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman as a dialogue between Von Trier and his hypothetical audience. Seligman might as well be a film critic, drawing constant, pretentious parallels to art and religion, interpreting a personal story through an intellectual lens. (That the character is revealed to be a middle-aged virgin says something about what Von Trier thinks of critics.) At times, the two characters seem to be hashing out the major talking points of the director’s career: Joe’s account of an aborted three-way with two African immigrants leads into a debate about political correctness, while her later expression of sympathy for a pedophile feels like a metaphoric address of the misjudged “I am a Nazi” remarks that got Von Trier banned at Cannes. No wonder the film is four hours long: It seems intent on covering the entire length of the Lars story, from his films to the controversy he so regularly courts.
To read Nymphomaniac as auto-analysis is to align oneself with the dispassionate ear of Skarsgård’s academic, who can hear nothing but allusions in the sprawl of Joe’s tortured tale. But misinterpretation is built into the DNA of the plot; this is a film, after all, about a storyteller whose message (“I am a bad human being,” Joe says at the onset of Volume I) is frequently lost on the listener, who prefers to glean a different point from her personal anecdotes. Is Nymphomaniac Von Trier’s treatise on the impossibility of being understood through art? It certainly works better in that regard than as a statement about sex, addiction, liberation, feminism, or misogyny. Were the filmmaker trying to coherently comment on any of those topics, his thoughts got muddled in saga-length translation. And as usual, there’s just cause to be put off by his deliberately off-putting material, the relentless button-pushing that has become his stock-in-trade.
Mostly, Nymphomaniac plays like a grand doodle, Von Trier goofing on his own habits, his reputation, and on the conventions of episodic epics. (“I think this is one of your weaker digressions,” Joe amusingly tells Seligman after he redirects the conversation down some side-alley of memory.) Even when it’s piling on the punishments—the lashings, the sex-as-blackmail, some very unsexy water sports—the film feels more playful than the usual Von Trier, though Volume II is admittedly more of a chore than Volume I. As for the ending, it’s a long way to travel for such an inevitably cynical punctuation—even one that grants its downtrodden protagonist a final assertion of agency. Nymphomaniac may at best be a digression, but it’s not one of Von Trier’s weaker ones.