When we left Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, we’d been stopped cold in the middle of an ongoing narrative with damaged, ravenously sexual Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) relating her life story to the bookish, introverted Seligman (Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd). So what happens as we wrap it all up in a bondage knot?
The cumulative build-up of von Trier’s story truly becomes clear as the story moves on to Joe’s life after having a baby with her closest-thing-to-a-true-love, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Joe’s quest for some kind of sensation after becoming sexually numb eventually leads her to a man (Jamie Bell) who dominates her in various S&M scenarios. And if violence against women makes you squeamish … well, you probably should never watch a Lars von Trier film.
The frustrating conclusion of Nymphomaniac, however, has less to do with von Trier’s characteristic journeying into extremes than with digressing from what made the story most intriguing in the first place. There’s far less of the interaction between Joe and Seligman, which frames the juxtaposition between Joe’s self-judgment and Seligman’s matter-of-fact absorbing of her stories as just another bit of data to add to his mental library. It strays even farther when the conclusion focuses on Joe’s new career as an organized crime collector, and her relationship with a young protégé (Mia Goth). With only isolated exceptions, von Trier loses sight of his daring questioning of where and why we draw our sexual morality lines in the sand, and how we respond to our desires.
Perhaps the final moments of Nymphomaniac circle around to that idea perfectly. Then again, maybe it’s just the hugely frustrating punch line to some shaggy-dog joke. Either way, it might be a lot easier to judge the film in its entirety, rather than catching up with Vol. 2 merely to discover it’s quite an anti-climax.
NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 2
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd