Sexual Healing: Charlotte Gainsbourg Enters the Dark Side in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II

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Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, center) tries to revive her sex life.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, center) tries to revive her sex life.

The second act of Nymphomaniac isn’t the first sequel shot by notorious Danish director Lars von Trier; that honor belongs to the horror movie Epidemic. Yet his latest two-part film carries the distinction that it comes with the first cinematic cliffhanger in his storied career – one that works almost like a coitus interruptus in the context of a promiscuous woman. Whereas the first part of Nymphomaniac narrates the story of a young female sex addict, the second half finally reveals how she ended up in the hermit’s house.

At the beginning of the movie, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells Seligman (Stellan Starsgård) all about a rather curious chapter in her life. In her story, she lives with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), the love of her life, but she has completely lost her appetite for intercourse – or rather, her vagina has. Almost traumatized by the fact, she begins to explore the darker side of her sexuality even further, whether by having a threesome with two black men, by engaging in sadomasochistic activities, or even by entering organized crime at the behest of the enigmatic P (Willem Dafoe). She finally arrives in Seligman’s care, but can she trust him?

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II continues with a typical Lars von Trier theme – that of the struggling woman who eventually has a transcendental experience. Joe indeed has an epiphany at the house of the recluse and, thanks to Seligman, vows to turn away from her promiscuity forever. While that may be seem to be too simple a resolution for such a tragic story, the Danish director wouldn’t be true to form if he didn’t add some extra spice to go with it. Seligman may look like a surrogate father for the protagonist, a replacement for her own dad (Christian Slater) who dies during the first part of Nymphomaniac as well as a person she can completely entrust with her darkest secrets, but he turns out to be quite the opposite.

Joe confides in him because she both sees him as a friend and believes his claims that he is a virgin who only loves books. Sure enough, Seligman seems to be blessed to someone like Joe, for he doesn’t display any lust while she narrates all about the rollercoaster ride that life is to her. He really appears to be abstinent as well as asexual, treating Joe’s stories with an almost professional nondescript interest. That makes it all the more disappointing when Seligman later, after her cathartic experience, returns to her room with his pants down and wants to have sex with her.

The heroine cocking the gun and whacking instead of wanking him when the picture has already faded to black is, then, nothing but the delayed ejaculation of yet another coitus interruptus – of her killing a man she trusts. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s own rendition of the Jimi Hendrix classic “Hey Joe” about a man who shoots his lady during the credits only confirms that Nymphomaniac: Vol. II is about role reversal. She sings her own song as much as she assumes a position usually occupied by men – that of the promiscuous hedonist who takes hold of every opportunity to experience pleasure.

The film therefore has all the makings of a Greek tragedy, just that the low-key conclusion is probably somewhat of a disappointment for most viewers. It may not be the most restrained ending in film history, but it’s certainly anticlimactic – pun completely intended. The question may be allowed what exactly Nymphomaniac: Vol. II brings to the table, then. At least the censored version isn’t nearly raunchy enough to pass off as a hardcore porn movie, regardless of the ‘Mandingo scene’ with the two Africans.

The first part starts off really promising, even brilliant at times, with both a good premise and a fantastic cast – which makes it all the more disappointing the ending is such a letdown. The anticipation simply doesn’t hold up. For that reason, Nymphomaniac: Vol. II leaves you with the impression that it’s more hot air than anything else. As usual in a Lars von Trier film, the audiovisuals are beyond reproach. Unfortunately, the same doesn’t apply to story and pacing. The concept of Nymphomaniac looks great on paper, and you really want to like it if you’re into offbeat filmmaking. The cinematic realization, sadly, is not.