Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell in Nymphomaniac: Volume II (Magnolia Pictures)

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell in Nymphomaniac: Volume II (Magnolia Pictures)

Written & Directed by Lars von Trier
Produced by Louise Vesth
Released by Magnolia Pictures
Denmark/Belgium/France/Germany/UK. 123 min. Not rated
With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth, Jean-Marc Barr and Udo Kier

We all knew Nymphomaniac: Volume II was going to spiral downward. Is there anyone out there who thinks Lars von Trier can make a film about sex and not let his all-pervasive guilt complex shape its trajectory? Sexuality is going to leave wreckage in its path, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

For this installment, there’s a recognizable pattern to the story arc already established in the first part (the lead role is shared again between Stacy Martin, as the young Joe, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the elder). Joe’s inability to control her sexuality puts her in worse and worse straits as she battles her dark obsession. Nymphomaniac doesn’t get nearly as dark, or as sex-shamed as, for instance, Antichrist, but I’ll give you an example of the depths Joe eventually reaches: “The second rule is, we have no safe word.” There’s no mistaking, this is an addiction film.

Joe’s misadventures continue into her adult life. Her relationship with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) eventually wears out, and he encourages her to seek satisfaction elsewhere. She does, and their relationship crumbles. She descends into more intense sexual practices, meeting regularly with “K” (Jamie Bell), who satisfies sexual desire in willing female clients through submission and pain.

All the while the story is told through flashbacks, narrated by the older Joe as she recounts her sordid tales to the celibate and intellectual Seligman, played by a wide-eyed Stellan Skarsgard. I can’t help but picture Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier himself, spouting historically supported (often arcane) interpretations of the events of Joe’s life. As a girl, she has a spontaneous orgasm and hallucinates that she sees faces above her: Seligman believes the apparitions are a pair of famous sex addicts from antiquity. In this volume, he reveals that he is, in keeping with his weird naiveté, an asexual virgin.

Yet, Volume II is different than the first. “I think this was one of your weakest digressions,” says Joe after yet another of Seligman’s stretched attempts to rationalize her motivations. Mr. von Trier this time isn’t interested (as in Antichrist) in ramming the philosophy home. He’s far more playful—more tongue-in-cheek. In many ways, it’s a more fulfilling experience than the semiotics-charged Antichrist in that we are disarmed by the playful humor and lulled into a palpable connection with Joe and the eclectic characters. And when the film takes its various murky (and yes, overtly metaphoric) turns, our guard is down.

The German metal band Rammstein’s driving, macabre “Führe mich” is conspicuously absent in this one, replaced instead by the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” a far dancier, spunkier theme song that does two very effective things. First, the song perfectly carries us into Joe’s most empowered phase, one in which she has fully embraced her affliction and makes the best of it. She has boldly gotten her act together and become a kind of bag-woman for a powerful extortionist, using her knowledge of sex for coercion and personal gain. Eventually taking on a protégé, she becomes disillusioned and betrayed, leading to the climactic (ha) events of the film.

The second thing the song does, something “Führe mich” did as well, only in the opposite way, is that it plays against the tone. The first film was often offbeat, unexpected, and almost satirical. Volume II depicts the characters now as adults, and it has consequences. When something hurts now, it’s meaningful. Where Rammstein’s false drama—the epic, over-the-top guitar and vocals—took the edge off any uncomfortable humor by blowing it up to sarcastic proportions, singer David Byrne’s quirk is in stark contrast to the depths Volume II’s story reaches.

A lot happens in the last 20 minutes. Rightly, there is a lot of story to wrap up and ideas left to yet resolve. Like one of Joe’s many (many) sexual experiences, Nymphomaniac leaves us satisfied in the moment, yet ultimately with a nagging desire for more. The final beat is hilariously von Trier-esque, another pesky little wink at the end of two films full of winks. His theoretical position here isn’t as starkly obvious as, say, Antichrist, but if a great discussion doesn’t flow from this film, I’ll be genuinely surprised. This is another installment in this director’s seriously thought-provoking catalog. Yet will this overstuffed epic finally purge the self-effacing guilt from this celebrated head case of a director? We shall see.