Nymphomaniac: Volume I ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, as the titular sex addict, Joe (alternately played by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg), found that she could no longer get off upon the discovery of “true love” with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf). After much throat-clearing, the film closed, then, with the stage finally set for one of director Lars von Trier’s characteristic anti-everything harangues. If the first film benefitted from a friction that sparked from its veiled threat to tumble at any moment into intentionally outright and perhaps therapeutic self-parody, Volume II finds von Trier too comfortably resorting to familiarly reductive tirades that essentially insist that any pretense of humanity is false and meaningless. Having discovered the constraint of love (i.e. that real love is about the concern for someone other than herself), Joe proceeds to embark on a series of painful misadventures that pull her deeper into the world of anonymous sex, with an added emphasis on self-objectification and brutal sadomasochism, which are implicatively intended to cast her capacity for love out of her body.
As in the first film, Joe’s trysts are imbedded with a variety of psychosexual signifiers that are desperately contrived so as to be provocative. Joe picks up an African black man (Kookie) off the street, and arranges, through a pasty-white translator, to have the man meet her at a dingy motel room. The stranger brings his brother along, and the two bicker, in their native language without accompanying subtitles. Based on Joe’s narration as well as the men’s physical gestures, it appears they’re undecided as to who should fuck which of Joe’s orifices, which leads to a coitus interruptus that affords von Trier the opportunity to make a prolonged foreground fetish of their impressive semi-hard cocks, which are always threatening to touch and engage in the kind of “swordfight” that’s much ballyhooed in homophobic frat-boy circles.
As staged, there’s no satirical, emotional, or intellectual reverberation to the stereotype of the hung black stud that von Trier’s indulging in this scene. This moment, like every other in the film, exists to goad the bourgeoisie good taste of his mostly white and rarefied audience, and to allow the director to indirectly stew in his own sexual self-loathing. Make no mistake, it’s von Trier’s, rather than Joe’s (and, by ludicrous extension, womankind’s), self-loathing that’s truly under discussion in Nymphomaniac.
Said loathing is most pronounced in the chain of encounters that serve as Volume II’s centerpiece. Joe eventually arranges to meet K (Jamie Bell), a sadist, who, pointedly and tellingly, always has a long line of grateful, bored housewives in his reception room awaiting his demeaning brutalization. After a series of implied negotiations, K ties Joe up to a couch, props her rump up in the air just so, and proceeds to administer beatings that grow so awful as to earn their inevitable comparison to the 40 Roman lashings administered to Jesus.
These scenes aren’t offensive for allowing Joe to enjoy pain; the acknowledgement that humans derive intense pleasure from a wide variety of activities that thwart any potential rationalizations, particularly gender-political, is the closest the film comes to evincing any kind of maturity. No, these scenes are offensive because von Trier’s pleasure is more palpable than Joe’s. The camera practically salivates over Joe’s injuries, which are often framed in intense, gory close-ups that, at the very least, serve as relief from the contemptuously shaky choreography (complemented by dung-colored cinematography) that dominates both volumes. And torture hasn’t reverberated with auditory effects this vibrantly masturbatory since Jesus was lacerated for our sins in The Passion of the Christ. Every blow is lauded as an exclamation point.
These encounters reaffirm that, for all of Nymphomaniac’s superficial feminist naval-gazing, Joe’s concerns are never von Trier’s. She isn’t a character (admittedly, neither is anyone else in either film), but a device that allows the filmmaker to haphazardly stitch together a variety of sexual fantasies, most of which pivot on the pain and degradation of the female at the hands of an embittered male. K, who derives pleasure from violation and who can’t bring himself to participate in conventional sex, parallels Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the blowhard intellectual to whom Joe is relating her various stories, who’s unsurprisingly revealed in this volume to be a virgin, a self-pronounced asexual being.
Von Trier is partially on to something here: the acknowledgement that sex, for outcasts, is defined by its cruel sense of exclusion, and that its inclusive properties are taken for granted by those lucky enough to be deemed attractive by society. That’s a rich conceit that was beautifully explored in the recent Stranger by the Lake, which portrayed sex as an occasionally exhilarating mystery with a bottomless potential for chaos that functions as the ultimate ungovernable social caste system. But von Trier doesn’t have that kind of empathy; the sex in Nymphomaniac is inhuman, mechanical, boring, and predictably viewed through the (male) scrim of someone who characterizes women solely as withholders. Joe’s promiscuity is an arch, hypocritical dodge. We’re not primed to ask why Joe fucks all these guys (and a few obligatory girls), and we’re certainly not encouraged to enjoy her erotic encounters, as such conventional stimulation is deemed to be below von Trier’s self-consciously arty pretensions. We’re truly encouraged to wonder why Joe will fuck everyone except her new benevolent and courtly friend, a surrogate von Trier, who cares for her enough to bore her with a variety of self-serving historical, philosophical, and musical factoids. Beneath its posturing, Nymphomaniac is another of von Trier’s odes to self-absorption: He punishes women for refusing to reciprocate interest that he never deigns to initially extend.