Film Review | Nymphomaniac Vol. 2

Enfant terrible director Lars Von Trier fires blanks with this lazy, try-hard conclusion to his sex-addict character study.

A world of pain: Charlotte Gainsbourg goes to extremes in the concluding chapter of Lars Von Trier's dark erotic parable
A world of pain: Charlotte Gainsbourg goes to extremes in the concluding chapter of Lars Von Trier's dark erotic parable

Being someone who’s quite fascinated with the ‘trickster’ character in world culture and mythology, I’m a guy who can appreciate a good con. The joy of watching someone – or something, if we’re sticking to myth – execute a bit of mischief is an undeniable pleasure, all the more so when it seems to be done purely for its own sake.

It carries an element of risk – which also means there’s an element of suspense to observing it – and it necessarily requires its con man (or woman) to be equipped with an intuitive creativity and an ability to think on their feet.

Tricksters are snakes, imps, satyrs: possessing a cunning intelligence and an ability to sneak across boundaries and, sometimes, dangerously close to authority figures.

Some, like the cultural commentator Lewis Hyde, even suggest that tricksters ‘make the world’ and as we know it – though perhaps ‘remake’ might be the better word, as Hyde’s analysis reveals that trickster myths and stories show them tearing apart the established order of things, only to give way – often unwittingly – to a new world order. In other words, they’re often responsible for pressing the world’s ‘Refresh’ button, giving way to a newer, healthier cultural landscape in the long run.

It’s very tempting to see Lars Von Trier’s much-hyper erotic shocker Nymphomaniac as just such an attempt to shake up both the relentless churn of the Hollywood blockbuster machine and its precious, glittering art house counterpart. Having already been blacklisted (albeit, as it turned out, temporarily) from the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 after making some ill-advised Nazi-themed “jokes”, the Danish director appeared to be back in full provocative swing with the Nymphomaniac duology this year.

But where the first instalment was a blackly humorous and often inspired journey through the sexual awakening of our protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, played in a younger iteration by fearless newcomer Stacy Martin), its continuation is a joyless terminal descent that, amidst all the depravity on display, dares to be that most annoying thing of all: boring.

Joe continues her story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) at a point when sexual numbness and domestic drudgery threatens to rob her of her nymphomania: the condition which is both a blessing and a curse, leaving her the victim of sex addition but also undeniably endowing her with a life-force.

After the birth of their first child, her partner Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) allows Joe to satisfy her insatiable lust with other men, since it becomes clear that he can’t satisfy her on his lonesome.

This leads to her exploring sado-masochism with the meticulous (and apparently, otherwise quite decent) ‘K’ (Jamie Bell), and even land a job as a loan shark, owing to her reputation.

Volume 2 continues along with Volume 1’s episodic structure, but the episodes are more widely spaced out and all the joy (it was always a dark kind of joy, I’ll grant you) is drained out of them in favour of portraying a downward spiral that is neither conceptually interesting nor narratively convincing.

It’s perhaps expected for things to take a darker turn – this is Von Trier, after all – but it’s also kind of tragic. Because what made Volume 1 so great was that it in fact played against expectations with aggressive gusto: instead of the sleaze-fest suggested by its marketing campaign, we something intellectually playful and visually inventive; instead of Von Trier misanthropy, we got a ping-pong match of opposing ideas that was a pleasure to take in despite its outwardly sordid nature.

Like Quentin Tarantino was forced to do for his Kill Bill saga, Von Trier needed to cut down his four-hour opus into two films, and I suspect this is one reason why its second part feels so utterly devoid of tempo and energy.

Not that sitting through it one go would have been a great alternative, mind. Like Tarantino, Von Trier is an often-in-the-headlines critical darling – even the idea that he was “forced” to cut down his four-hour opus brings to mind the whinging of an overindulged child – which means that he can get away with a lot, and here I don’t just mean provocative content.

There is something so dispiritingly facile about the way Volume 2 unfolds: characters are ciphers – even more so than they were before – and plot developments are largely made up of lazy coincidences (and no, having Joe point them out as such isn’t enough to excuse them away). Again, the lack of a traditional storytelling structure wasn’t a problem in Volume 1, but Von Trier gives us very little to work with here.

Crowning the dull experience is a tacked-on ‘shock’ ending that just feels unearned and cheap.

Shallow, adolescent pontificating about our moral hypocrisy and gender imbalance does not a movie make, no matter how many thrusting celebrity bodies you throw into the frame.

This is one con that wasn’t fun to watch.

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