After seeing “Nymphomaniac Volume 2,” the second and final film in Lars von Trier’s four-hour epic journey into degrading sex by a female addict, one is tempted toward flippancy. Like saying this kind of thing could give sex a bad name.
But the film is nothing if not a serious one and besides that flip remark isn’t entirely true. For I’m not sure if the film is about sex at all.
Let’s back up. In Cannes, where von Trier’s films would premiere in a designated slot with clockwork regularity, the old saying was that his true art form was not film but rather the press conference. His meetings with the Cannes press were truly things of rare and astonishing beauty, seemingly the reason he made a movie.
The give-and-take with a multitude of international journalists, his outrageous comments, each one more breath-taking than the last, and the manner in which he held sway often far outshone the movie at hand.
Then a few years ago, when the strain of topping himself evidently became too much, von Trier tried to make a Nazi joke laced with fake anti-Semitism that never found a punchline. In fact, his own ticket got punched one way: he was banned from the particular Cannes Festival and has remained so ever since.
Now he can only make movies and has barred himself from speaking to the press.
The point is that this is a gifted though possibly troubled man of cinema who nevertheless courts controversy and provocation with assiduous relish. One can excuse and even defend films such as “Melancholia,” “Manderlay” and “Antichrist,” but the suspicion has always been (with me at least and I’m sure I am not alone) that these are (among other things) deliberately provocative acts.
With “Nymphomaniac,” which I am now prepared to deal with in its entirety having finally seen the final chapters — each two-hour movie is divided into four chapters —the film fails to build energy or insights into human sexuality but rather loses its energy rather like a sex partner unable to perform.
The final four “chapters” feel impotent. They push further into the margins of sexuality, none more so than the heroine Joe’s venture into S&M as practiced by a professional played by a disturbingly cold Jamie Bell.
Even that casting choice, reminding you that Bell once played such jolly roles as “Billy Elliot” and “Tintin” — oh, look what the poor lad is doing now! — feels like a deliberate joke.
So it’s hard to thoroughly investigate the the reasons behind this cinematic voyeurism when the whole thing starts to act like a bad joke.
Please read my review of “Nympho 1” on these blog pages.
Volume two has Gainsbourg herself now play Joe, joylessly thrusting herself into vivid or extreme situations such as a “sandwich” between two well-endowed African males, who speak not a word of English; stuffing long spoons up her vagina in a fancy restaurant (to the astonishment of a waiter played by Udo Kier for all of a few seconds); and finally those raw S&M sequences.
The latter is where Joe seemingly finds something approximating bliss but she needs to tell you this. It’s hard to read it in her blank expression.
As the film moves remorselessly toward the situation that provoked her brutal beating, Joe takes a job that makes little sense. She uses the techniques acquired by her lifelong adventures in sexual exploration to work for a high-end financial fixer and debt collector played by Willem Dafoe. But what exactly does she do?
She does bring into this situation a very young girl (an enthusiastic Mia Goth).This is played like a kind of willing corruption by an older nympho of a younger one; she is a sort of mirror image of Joe’s younger self.
Then comes a final twist ending that blows everything sky high. Some, of course, will read all sorts of significance into it; I see it as a final nod to controversy rather than a logical ending to this modern-day Scheherazade keeping her interlocutor on pins and needles listening to her sad tale.
For it is sad. If one wants to take any of this seriously, “Nymphomaniac” is a tone poem to loneliness and devastation. Joe loses her family and child because of her proclivities.
Yet she never seems to get any real happiness out of either her sexual experiences or outsider status. The spiritual catharsis achieved by von Trier’s Bess in his great “Breaking the Waves” forever eludes this poor woman.
Opens: April 4, 2014 (Magnolia Pictures)
Production: Zentropa Entertainment
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Mai Goth, Michael Pas, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier
Director/screenwriter: Lars von Trier
Producer: Louise Vesth
Executive producers: Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Marie Gade Denessen, Peter Garde
Director of photography: Manuel Alberto Claro
Production designer: Simone Grau Roney
Visual effects supervisor: Peter Hjorth
Costume designer: Manon Rasmussen
Editor: Molly Marlene Stensgaard
No rating, 122 minutes