Active Ingredients: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellen Skarsgard
Side Effects: Shallowness, cruelty and preposterousness
[Read my review of Nymphomaniac: Volume I here.]
Nymphomaniac: Volume II reveals the shallowness of Lars von Trier’s saga of emotional and sexual depravity that probably existed all along. And yet I feel that my reaction to the completed work would be substantially different if I had seen it in its original form, longer and as a single film. As it stands, however, Volume II eschews the formal and narrative playfulness of the first installment and veers Joe’s story in directions either impotent, regressive, or simply ludicrous.
Volume II begins as Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) enters into her first committed relationship, with the crass and boorish Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). She wants to be desired by Jerome, but retreats back into her emotional frigidness when their child is born. Motherhood and a bourgeois existence don’t suit Joe, and she begins to chase her desire for sensation into darker and more violent situation. If Volume I is about discovering an existential emptiness, Volume II is about filling that void with raw abuse.
The problem is that von Trier fails to justify, dramatize or elaborate on this masochism. Without an understanding of the origins or implications of this drive, the film just becomes distasteful. The smaller and more personal anecdotes from Joe’s narrative—such as discovering her predatory instincts on a train—have much more to say about both her own neuroses and the film’s themes of storytelling. As she recounts her life, Stellen Skarsgard’s character riffs on the events, offering expansions and alternate theories that give the viewer more to chew on.
Since Volume II begins to limit these visuals digressions (there’s even a snarky meta joke about it), Joe’s story just becomes less convincing and more silly. By the time the character becomes a gangster von Trier had lost me. Nymphomaniac: Volume I might be a fascinating portrait of existential emptiness, but Volume II is just empty.