Nymphomaniac: Volume II (Magnolia Pictures, NR)

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It’s a shame, then, that Nymphomaniac seems likely to be remembered more as one of Von Trier’s rare misfires, as opposed to the great film(s) he clearly intended it to be.

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I said in my review of Nymphomaniac: Volume I that distributor Magnolia has been vocal about wanting critics to keep their reviews of the two volumes separate. Now that I’m reviewing Volume II, can I at least say that, unlike the Kill Bill films, it feels like the Nymphomaniac project was never intended to be split into two parts? I don’t know at what point it became Lars Von Trier’s intention to split it (maybe when the runtime ballooned past what people would be willing to sit still for?), but it isn’t as easily bisected as one would hope; I think the overall experience would be better if the viewer saw this film roadshow-style.

That said, Nymphomaniac: Volume II is a better overall film than Volume I. As one would probably expect, it’s still plagued with many of the same problems—the scenes between Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) are still weirdly bad, most notably—but there are improvements here. Where the first film made some really dopey metaphors relating to Joe’s sex life, Volume II gets this a little better, especially with one comparing Eastern and Western styles of religion. The most memorable set pieces from Volume II are better than those that came before, and some newly-introduced supporting players, most notably Jamie Bell, turn in strong performances. That said, there are new problems with Volume II, too, most glaringly being that the ending doesn’t work. This is particularly odd, given that Von Trier is one of those directors who can historically be relied upon to turn in a really great, memorable ending (see: Breaking the Waves and Dogville).

Volume II picks up with Joe still telling her life story to Seligman after he rescues her from an alleyway, in which she was laying in a bloody pile, at the beginning of Volume I. Stacy Martin, who plays the younger version of Joe, figures in less prominently in Volume II—Gainsbourg plays almost all of the Joe scenes herself in this one—which is the closest thing to a logical turning point and reason to split Volumes I and II apart. Early on in Volume II Joe does such things as to seek out sex with a man who doesn’t speak her language (which results in a memorable scene where two black men argue over which hole of Joe’s they get to penetrate, which argument takes place in a different language, unsubtitled, with Joe framed by their erect penises) and begins seeing a professional man (Bell, as a character known only as K) who women go to only to be beaten terribly, and not had sex with. Bell in these scenes is suitably scary, which is impressive when you consider that the role most people know him for is that of Billy Elliot in the film of the same name, wherein he plays a ballet dancer.

Though Volume I often seemed to feature vague allusions to other films and filmmakers, these allusions are easier to spot in Volume II—a sharp-eyed viewer might see references to Pier Paolo Pasolini (the books Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, and 1001 Arabian Nights all pop up, and all of those were adapted by Pasolini into films), The Piano Teacher, and even past Von Trier films such as Breaking the Waves and Antichrist. In this way it feels like Von Trier is trying to make a culminating work, bringing together his influences and his past films in epic manner. It’s a shame, then, that Nymphomaniac seems likely to be remembered more as one of Von Trier’s rare misfires, as opposed to the great film(s) he clearly intended it to be. | Pete Timmermann

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