Movie a Day Blog promised an examination of both parts of Lars von Trier’s controversial deep-dive into excessive female sexuality, since he really intended it to be one four-hour-plus film.
Von Trier’s exploration in NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL II (2013,Netflix Streaming) of the erotic misadventures of Joe, this time played almost exclusively by the enigmatic actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, is more disturbing than the first part of the saga, NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL I (2013), which is saying something given the total degradation undergone by actress Stacy Martin playing Young Joe.
The principal issue von Trier seems to be working out in NYMPHOMANIAC 2 is the link between violence and sexuality, or in this case, exclusively violence against women. He enlists Jamie Bell to play a character who has women filling up his waiting room for the honor of being punched out, and I mean hard.
These are not love taps, and the victims leave bruised and battered, but supposedly pleased. Huh? Von Trier really can’t begin to explain this, because my guess is these kind of encounters don’t really exist. There are scattered deviants up for anything, but to present Gainsbourg as a woman just itching to get smashed in the kisser is both disturbing and despicable.
Von Trier can presume to know much about any number of subjects, and he’s not a crude, pedestrian filmmaker out just to shock and displease. Still, he loves the “Tsk, tsk” response his depiction of Bell’s activities elicits, and we can imagine him chortling in the editing room as he subjects Gainsbourg to one indignity after another, all designed to infuriate feminists and women in general, unless they see sexist art as simply art.
Gainsbourg, who is the daughter of British actress Jane Birkin and the French singer and heartthrob Serge Gainsbourg, has done numerous offbeat and unusual roles over her 35-year career (her father made an entire documentary about her and their relationship, CHARLOTTE FOR EVER (1986)).
Now 53, she has a wonderful crumpled face that registers what the world has done to her. Her voice is just as broken, and as in the first film, she tells her remarkably unerotic account of her sexual partners to the enigmatic Seligman, again played by Stellan Skarsgard. After so many hours together, we come to trust that Skarsgard is the sympathetic listener he presents to both us and Gainsbourg, but von Trier is not about to let any of us off so easily.
I found NYMPHOMANIAC II to be a depressing litany of degrading and dehumanizing acts, as much as Gainsbourg tried to invest them with some humanity through her frail form and voice. It’s a wasted effort, however, because von Trier has a great imagination when it comes to humiliating people. It’s no wonder he’s voiced his admiration for Hitler, because he has the same capacity for debasement.
He puts Joe through sexual therapy, through a kinky and bizarre marriage and a stepson she has to pack off to foster care. None of it makes Joe any more appealing, although Gainsbourg does wonderful work playing a sex addict who has trouble coming to terms with her addiction, somethat that’s certainly been obvious to the rest of us since the first 10 minutes of the initial film.
Von Trier makes the same point over and over again in the two NYMPHOMANIAC films, and while the ending is wholly satisfying, little that leads up to it succeeds as well. We hope von Trier can finally move on to another subject, that after BREAKING THE WAVES (1996) DOGVILLE (2003), and MELANCHOLIA (2011) he has at last exhausted his fascination with punishing the female psyche. Maybe now he can move on to battling his own. I know some viewers who would love to punch him in the face.