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Nymphomaniac: Vol. II - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-

It could be said that Nymphomaniac, both Vols. I and II, exists as a challenge. While Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), literally invokes the word while telling her story in bed while wearing pajamas provided by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), director Lars von Trier is holding up a mirror to his viewers, notably American ones, as hypocrites. Hypocrisy, interwoven equally with sex and religion, is a major theme.

Reaction to Vol. II has been slightly less positive than that to Vol. I, and it's easy to see why -- as well as how it illustrates the ease by which viewers can miss the point. A crucial character detail about Seligman is revealed right out of the gate here, which plays significantly in the movie's deceptively ham-fisted, shocker ending. And just before that ending -- which is thoroughly satisfying if you've been paying paying attention -- Seligman makes an observation about gender roles that is so obvious as to be almost a distracting cliché. But one gets the sense that von Trier knew exactly what he was doing.

Did Nymphomaniac need to be split into two parts, each two full hours long? Perhaps not. On the other hand, not one moment, not one shot, seems wasted, superfluous, or like filler. These are complicated issues and von Trier fleshes them out gracefully. I could not with any confidence say which portions should have been cut out. This is a fully realized, complete story. That it takes every bit as long as, say, Gone with the Wind to tell (without being in any way "epic") is immaterial. You either step onto the world of von Trier, and accept it on its own terms, or you don't. But if you do, in this case at least, you won't be disappointed.

This really isn't so much a sequel as it is, quite literally, the second half of the same movie. Joe's still telling her long tale through the night in Seligman's dingy apartment. At first we discover a way in which Seligman, quite surprisingly, is the yang to Joe's yin. And then Joe details how her sexual exploits took a darker turn. She suddenly loses her ability to orgasm, and it drives her insane. Only amping up the intensity manages to bring her arousal back. She visits a young man who makes it clear he won't fuck her, and will only be violent. There's a lot of face slapping and ass whipping, which, while certainly intense, is a little less than expected after he tells her there will be no safe word. (This guy, incidentally, is played by Jamie Bell, and it's a little jarring to see Billy Elliot sticking her fingers up a woman to taste her lubricated state of arousal.)

Joe's obsession with sex begins to endanger family members. She finds a job as a shady "debt collector," where she encounters a man she is able to shame into paying his debt when she uncovers his latent pedophilia. This is a truly fascinating sequence, both in the flash back and in the present-day apartment telling of it. Here, after all of Seligman's refusal to be judgmental of Joe regardless of what horrible thing she says she's done, he cannot abide by Joe's admission that she took pity on him. Never before has a movie featured a character who made a clear, logical case for taking pity on pedophiles -- particularly the majority of them who live their lives never hurting children and suppressing their sexuality. This is a minor blip in terms of the overall story, but it factors heavily into its over-arching themes -- namely, the hypocritical nature of society's view of sexuality, and trapping others inside boxes of pre-judgement.

Vol. II takes on somewhat more conventional cinematic characteristics when Joe is encouraged to take on a protege, a young, underprivileged girl with a deformed ear (Mia Goth), who seduces Joe after a period of abstinence due to wounding herself through obsessive masturbation. This morphs into a relationship that finally connects to the opening scene of Vol. I, which offered no such connections thereafter, when Joe was found beaten and bloodied on the ground by Seligman.

Finally, as in many other movies, plot shifts come in the form of jealous lovers, something Joe is frustrated to find herself falling victim to. By the end, less informed viewers may find themselves so turned off by this that they'll write off the entire film. But there are multitudes of ways to read into Nymphomaniac, and one gets the sense that is exactly how von Trier wants it. It gets a little meta, but very subtly so. Or, at least, it does if you choose to see it that way, which I did. And I found that very satisfying.

The same warning applies here as did the first half. Indeed, there was a sign on the ticket counter at the movie theatre that warned the film "contains graphic depictions of sexuality to a degree unprecedented in a mainstream feature film." The times, they are a-changin'. And so what? Some audiences won't mind; some will be incensed; and Nymphomaniac has something to say to both groups. I remain in the middle on the issue myself, but have to concede this much: if a movie must have such graphic sex in it, if it can be justified by any director, it's Lars von Trier.

There is absolutely nothing in this movie that exists just to titillate. It exists to challenge, right to the very end, when it challenges even the notions we had about what the movie itself had to say up to that point. That is as it should be.

Charlotte Gainsbourg takes her proclivities to a darker place in NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. II.

Overall: A-
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