Picking up where we left off from Volume I, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is continuing to tell her story to her rescuer Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). When we last left off from the previous film, Joe has suddenly lost all sexual sensation. It doesn’t help matters for her that she’s pregnant. Pregnancy aside, she’s looking for more, which takes her down some dark paths later on, including seeking out quietly sadistic S&M expert K (Jamie Bell) and working with the somewhat brutal debt collector L (Willem Dafoe).
Lars von Trier once said, “A film should be like a stone in your shoe.” He certainly fulfills that here as Volume II strips away the dark humor that was prevalent in the first film, and changes gears for a darker vibe both in story and character.
You thought the real von Trier was gone, didn’t you? Nope, he’s back.
To those that didn’t like the first film or just don’t like Lars von Trier, they’ll no doubt not wanna waste their time with this. It’s also understandable that there will be those that liked the first and wind up not liking the second entry, which has been the case with various other reviews. The humor and satire is completely stripped away here, and the knee-jerk tone shift will leave an abrupt and shocking impressing on some viewers.
That’s the main problem with this film, and honestly I have to say it’s not the film’s fault. As I mentioned in my review of Nymphomaniac: Volume I, the ending feels abrupt in a way that you know this isn’t meant to be a stand-alone type of film. I said that von Trier would’ve been better off just releasing this as one 3 and 1/2 hour, maybe 4 hour film, and Volume II just confirms that thought. Had this have been one stand-alone film, the jarring tone shift from the first to second film would’ve instead played out as a natural progression from pleasure to consequence. Consequences in a story like this are inevitable. At first, Joe is all about the lust and sexual sensation. She doesn’t want love. She doesn’t want the emotional attachment involved in a serious relationship, and as odd as it may seem, she doesn’t even want the act of sex. She just wants the pleasure she gets from sex and will get it in any way possible whether by one man or a number of them. So, naturally, repercussions are gonna come eventually, and they do. However, I would’ve preferred to see it all as one film, instead of having it split.
That said, this film still worked for me. Once I got past the initial change in tone, I was fixated on Joe and the damaged yet sympathetic character that she was. She’s such a lonely soul, yet von Trier wisely never condemns her (it may seem like it here with the consequences finally showing up), or portrays her like some maudlin “oh, poor thing” character. Much like Seligman does, there’s a sad fascination to be found in Joe that is perfectly captured by Charlotte Gainsbourg (given more screen time here than in the last entry). With her flat, monotone deliver, Gainsbourg superbly depicts Joe after all her actions have finally come to a head – sad, alone and empty.
In an excellent turn, and providing by far the best moments of Volume II, Jamie Bell – straying far, far, far, far away from his performance in The Adventures of Tintin – plays the S&M craving K who Joe (or, as he calls her, Fido) goes to. Bell is quiet, restrained, never showy, yet is such a creep. He abuses her with the beatings she desires, yet still advises her in his soft-spoken voice, “Breathe. Take it easy.” Von Trier films K’s scenes with the most naturalism in comparison to the rest of film. They’re the most disturbing moments, but strangely enough, they’re also the most engaging. K is the one man out of them all that leaves the most lasting impression – physically, emotionally and psychologically – with Joe throughout the entire film. Certain other events that follow their first interaction prove that.
Although Shia LaBeouf can’t hide the fact that his British accent is not that great, he does get one passive-aggressive scene with Joe (although not as great as Uma Thurman’s passive-aggressive turn in Volume I) on Christmas that reminded me he can deliver a good performance.
Seriously, Shia, just avoid Michael Bay and quit the antics and you’ll be fine.
Willem Dafoe turns in a fine cameo appearance near the final act of the film as a debt collector who hires Joe to use her “expertise” to gather his payments. It somewhat feels like he comes out of left field, but as their story arc progresses it slowly begins to make sense as to why von Trier takes that route.
Volume II is not quite as good as Volume I. The ending came off as too gimmicky and the overall story would’ve flowed much smoother as one film instead of two. Nevertheless, Lars von Trier continues this intriguing, dark character study that may loose a bit of steam by the end, but has its flaws compensated by the strong performances, Gainsbourg and Bell particularly. It’s a von Trier film, so the philosophical angle he’s aiming for could be a number of things from society, the nature of the female condition, women’s sexuality, or just von Trier’s usual bag of dark, crazy tricks that gets my full attention every time, for the most part. If you do choose to watch this, I recommend them back to back if you’re up for it and have the free time to spare.
I give Nymphomaniac: Volume II a B+ (★★★).