Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan SkarsgŒrd, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth, Micha‘l Pas, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, Shanti Roney, Caroline Goodall, Kate Ashfield, Tania Carlin, Daniela Lebang
Written by: Lars von Trier
Directed by: Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 123
Date: 04/04/2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2014)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sex and the Pity

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At the end of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Volume I, it appeared as if he were at last going to be kind to his protagonist, or at least show her some understanding. Now Nymphomaniac: Volume II is here, completing von Trier's four-hour-plus film, and things have gone back to normal. It almost makes me wonder if von Trier usually does this during the course of a single movie, but here, with a long break in the middle, his methods become painfully clear.

In this new movie, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) continues telling her stories to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). In the first and most crucial, she establishes a loving relationship at last with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), and they even have a child, but suddenly she goes numb in her womanly regions and no longer enjoys sex. She tries an experiment, having sex with two well-endowed African men, but this comes to nothing (and frankly, the scene feels rather gratuitous).

She also goes to see a masochist called K (Jamie Bell), who ties her up and spanks her and gets her sexually excited again. She becomes so devoted to going to K's office that she begins to neglect her child, and her relationship with Jerome falls apart.

Next she meets with L (Willem Dafoe, her partner in von Trier's even darker and more disturbing Antichrist), and he hires her for a debt collecting service. She tells a story in which she arouses a man by describing a sexual encounter with a young boy. Eventually she becomes adept enough that she becomes her own agent. At the request of L, she takes on a needy young apprentice, P (Mia Goth). By coincidence, they go to collect a debt from none other than Jerome, and P and Jerome begin an affair.

Joe obtains a gun to settle this affair, and that, more or less, is how she came to be in the alley where Seligman found her. Occasionally, during these stories, Seligman makes some of his asides, but they appear to grow more tiresome here. He struggles to make connections, and even Joe makes a comment about how banal his latest comment was. Joe also makes a revealing observation about Seligman that, honestly, makes him a little less interesting than in the first half of the movie.

All this I can forgive, but von Trier kills it in the final two minutes of the film. I can't remember another movie wherein that crucial couple of minutes ruined everything, but the behavior of certain characters in certain situations just somehow struck me as so pointless, so cruel, that it reduced the entirety of Nymphomaniac to something less than art and more like an experiment to test the audience's mettle. It's as if nothing that came before it mattered.

Between seeing the two sections of Nymphomaniac, I had a discussion with a friend about von Trier and his approach to humanity. She suggested that Melancholia was actually a very humane and respectful treatment of a person with depression, never mind that the movie ended badly. I'd have to agree with that, even though I was hopeful over the first half of Nymphomaniac, the second half reduced it to something quite a bit less than the entirety of Melancholia.

The sad part is that we now know that von Trier is capable of loving his heroines and simply chooses not to. Maybe someday, something will strike him differently and he will make another kind of choice.

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