Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I introduced us to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who was found lying bruised and bloodied in the middle of a street by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Recovering in his apartment, she proceeds to tell him the first half of her life story, a graphic sexual odyssey that dated all the way back to her third year. Nymphomaniac: Volume II, in which she tells the remainder of her story, begins right where the first film ended, in the middle of a chapter in which the younger Joe (Stacy Martin) discovers to her horror that her genitals no longer register any sensations. “I can’t feel anything!” she cried while having sex with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), the same man who took her virginity at age fifteen, hired her as his secretary some years later, and eventually became one third of a sexual cantus firmus.
In telling her story, Joe is trying to argue in favor of her worthlessness as a human being. Thus far, Seligman hasn’t been inclined to side with her. He has, in fact, been prone to use specific details of her story as springboards for his own narrative tangents, all stemming from his voracious reading on a wide variety of subjects, all strangely logical in their relation to her words. In Volume I, the dialogue came off less like Joe’s personal confessional and more like an intellectual conversation between her and Seligman – a melding of minds, if you will. In Volume II, we see that Joe isn’t as accepting of his digressions as we were initially led to believe. She begins to wonder if he’s even listening to what she’s telling him. She also finds it disquieting that he’s the only man who hasn’t become aroused by the details of her sordid past.
The film does indeed prove that there’s more to Seligman than meets the eye, although it should be noted that what he reveals about himself very early on is shockingly contradicted in the very last scene. But that aspect of the plot, compelling though as it is, isn’t as important as Joe telling her story, which has been divided into three additional chapters and one subchapter. As new details come to light, we in the audience at last begin to understand why she devalues herself so passionately. We might even begin to agree with her. That, for me, was very unsettling; it’s one thing to dislike a badly developed character in a second tier movie, but it’s quite another thing to be challenged by a complicated character in an equally complicated story, forcing me to question whether or not I could actually tolerate such a person in real life.
The loss of Joe’s ability to orgasm would have a profound impact on her personal life, leading her down progressively less savory avenues. There’s a period in which she settles into a domestic life with Jerome, raising an infant son she insisted be born via cesarean section so as not to cause any further harm to her vagina. As the years pass, it becomes apparent that her need to regain her sexual functioning outweighs any maternal instincts; she will leave her son with an unreliable babysitter while she, out of desperation, turns to a sadist known only as K (Jamie Bell). In a secret location, he abuses a roster of equally desperate women with leather whips, knots of cord that draw blood, and gloves filled with coins. He even bestows them with demeaning nicknames, Joe’s being Fido. What he gets out of this is anyone’s guess; he doesn’t pleasure himself during his violent acts, nor does he remove any articles of clothing. But even as Joe is forcibly bent over the arm of a couch and spanked, her waist secured with a leather strap and her wrists bound with rope, she quickly learns to move her pelvis in just the right way.
In later years, after both Jerome and her son have both left the picture, Joe becomes involved in an extortion racket run by a repugnant man known only as L (Willem Dafoe). Her job is, quite simply, to track down people who owe other people money and “coerce” them into paying. Her reputation with men, K especially, makes her ideal for this line of work. But then she sinks to a new low at the behest of L, who knows that even the best debt collectors need younger proteges to eventually succeed them. Joe carries out L’s order to seek out a troubled teen and win them over through encouragement and affection. Here enters a girl with a deformed ear named P (Mia Goth), whose affection for Joe only grows when she finally reaches the age of consent. Don’t take this to mean that P is one-dimensional.
Both volumes of Nymphomaniac elicit powerful reactions, in part because of select shots of unsimulated sexual acts but mostly because of von Trier’s willingness to delve into the darker, often unexplored recesses of the mind. But Nymphomaniac: Volume II is an especially audacious work. Apart from what we’re shown, we’re made to face unpleasant truths about specific aspects of human nature. There’s also the fact that, in his own twisted way, von Trier is making incredibly intelligent and pointed statements about sexism and gender roles. I suspect those who label his films as misogynistic are incapable of seeing the what lies beneath the provocative images. Say what you will – he has given women more interesting and complex roles than most directors alive today.