Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell in "NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME II," a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo Credit: Christian Geisnaes.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell in “NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME II,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo Credit: Christian Geisnaes.

If you’re reading the second part of this review, then you’ve probably decided to return to Lars von Trier’s circus of cinematic abuse. I’ll leave it to the individual reader to determine whether this latest foray into the darkest regions of desire and degradation constitutes a work of art. He is, after all, a highly respected auteur of film in some circles, so suffice it to say that in Nymphomaniac Volume II, the abuse Charlotte Gainsbourg as the nymphomaniac Joe inflicts on herself is more gut-wrenching and violent than you may have bargained for.

It’s also not sex for sex’s sake, which is unfortunately true for many of today’s directorial efforts — art house pornography, perhaps, but not an easy roll in the hay for the voyeur at all. The fact is Joe’s theme song could be “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” In a rare and beautifully rendered sequence we have come to expect from this director, undoubtedly aided by von Trier’s director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro and visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth, she is seen at 12 years of age experiencing a weightless orgasm or epiphany of sorts, admitting that she “only asked more from the sun.” She’s a woman on a search for fulfillment that will never be hers.

In a recent interview with Gainsbourg, David Morgan of CBS News recounts her comments on Joe: “I think there’s a lot of self-loathing. She puts herself into a lot of suffering, but she wants to take the blame.” Joe enters into a marriage with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), allowing herself to go through the motions of a bourgeois marriage and even childbirth, but she is so obviously unwilling to change her nightly habits, even with consent from her husband (and it’s to LaBeouf’s credit that he manages to play the cuckold lover with just the right measure of sympathy), that the whole business can only end badly.

Self-abuse and Joe are joined at the hip and every other part of her anatomy for that matter. She visits a professional sadist, underplayed with the appropriate degree of cool detachment by Jamie Bell, who visits 40 lashes on her. (This might be the best opportunity you will have to go for a popcorn break before the next twist in the plot.) Of course, the kindly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) as the passive listener to Joe’s story never misses a chance to intervene with his philosophical observations at every narrative turn. The Eastern-Western schism of the Catholic Church, the Passion of the Christ, and the polymorphic nature of the human infant are only a small part of what he will summon to explain away the unexplainable in Joe’s behavior.

Just when we think the weight of Joe’s travails is going to plunge the entire film into a bottomless abyss, von Trier injects a generous, if tasteless, dose of humor into the mix. Spying a black man out of her apartment window, she invites him up. When he arrives, with his brother in tow, a graphically raucous episode unfolds in their unintelligible African tongue. It seems they cannot decide on the tactics to be employed in servicing the docile Joe.

Though a little humor may be a welcome respite here, von Trier has nevertheless chosen to demonstrate in full-blown color that the old superstitions about the size of the male organ in African Americans may be warranted. More than once, the viewer can’t help but feel manipulated, as if the director will insert a cheap shot just for the hell of it. If you feel you’re little more than a pawn in his hands, you are probably right.

Forced into group therapy by a female supervisor at her job, Joe briefly goes through the paces of sharing her plight. But it’s a short-lived endeavor. Kate Ashfield as the therapist is compassionate enough but it’s obvious that Joe lives in a universe that has no room for adjustment in behavior. She despises their attempts to rehabilitate themselves. “Society has no room for me,” she will tell Seligman.

The netherworld of debt collectors, inhabited by her new boss, “L” (played by Willem Dafoe with a devilish world-weariness), is tailor-made for Joe. She’s a woman who can manipulate others into the most extreme acts of submission, having been on the other side her whole life, albeit willingly. Von Trier gives us a brilliant but reprehensible peek at the lengths she will go to when she tracks down a pederast to pay up. Without giving away the outcome of their encounter, it shows us that Joe is not totally the unfeeling monster incarnate. There is a crazy logic to most of her actions if we accept her role as an outsider to society. Uncharacteristically flush with her new employment, she even manages to send anonymous funds to the son she has abandoned.

Enter Mia Goth as “P.” At L’s urging, Joe takes on a feckless assistant to her nefarious chores, a gawky yet fascinating young woman as portrayed by Goth, who will project all her hero-(or in this case, heroine) worship on Joe. If you were wondering when Joe’s sexuality will open itself to a lesbian coupling, this is the moment. Still, fulfillment is never within reach, and by now, you should not be expecting a happy ending.

Even Seligman, who lends a non-judgmental ear throughout to Joe’s story, could hardly count as a stand-in for an eleventh-hour salvation. And though the attempt in the script to have Seligman justify her behavior as something society would brush off if only she were a man may be well-meaning, it carries an artificial ring. How little the filmmaker must think of the human animal at large if endless sexual activity, totally devoid of feeling or consequences, is the norm.

There are some very credible performers who fill out this eccentric and at times excruciating tale, and it’s only fair to give some explanation of the explicit sexual acts you may attribute to them. In the same cast interview with CBS News’ David Morgan, Stacy Martin as the young Joe described how the graphic scenes were done. Evidently, through prosthetics and a process termed CGI, the feat is accomplished in which a visual effects crew molds the upper body with the body of a porn actor or actress, filmed in separate sections.

At the end of this four-hour submersion into one woman’s life, we are left with a bankrupt existence, a character whose every breath and every action leads nowhere. Beyond her life as an unfulfilled sexual being, she is empty, subhuman, and undeserving of whatever compassion we might muster on her behalf. If that was von Trier’s intent in the making of Nymphomaniac, he has succeeded. She is not unlike the embodiment of a character out of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit. There is no change, and thus, no redemption.

There’s a subhead to the film’s title and it’s simply “forget about love.” If we take the director’s advice, we won’t look for the emotion here — or much of any other redeeming emotional value in this auspiciously slick, quasi-intellectual, but ultimately unsatisfactory work.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“Nymphomaniac Volume II,” a Magnolia Pictures and Zentropa Entertainments release, is slated to open April 4th in theatres and is also currently available through VOD, including iTunes and Amazon. For more information about the film, please visit

Video Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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