A very involved thesis could be written about the deluge of prickly issues raised in Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II, Lars von Trier’s four-hour, two-film epic about sexual discovery and degradation. For now, let’s focus on the “facts” of this modern Scheherazade fable: A man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), happens upon a woman, Joe, (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lying beaten in an alley; Seligman, a middle-aged virgin, brings Joe to his home, where she proceeds to recount, in a single night, the story of her life framed as a descent into the hell of sexual addiction.
Beyond this, any easy discussion of Nymphomaniac ends, and we progress into the existential realm of total relativity, where fancy theoretical discussions about religion, death, desire, history, politics and the nature of truth itself are complicated by the bump-and-grind of sexual obsession.
Previously in these pages, EW critic Molly Templeton did a bang-up job writing about the first installment of Nymphomaniac (see wkly.ws/1q5), leaving the second film for yours truly. If Vol. I spends two hot-and-bothered hours setting the movie’s carnal mystery in motion, Vol. II unleashes the beast, as Joe’s stories grow increasingly harrowing — episodes of sadism, humiliation, objectified racial predilection, self-mutilation and, finally, a kind of psycho-sexual espionage where Joe plays hired muscle to Willem Dafoe’s crime boss.
Like the Marquis de Sade before him, von Trier uses the raw reality of fucking as both springboard and portal into heady philosophical discussions about everything from the ontology of evil to the essence of democracy. Underlying all of this is the idea that the flashbulb of sexuality reveals our truest, deepest selves and, consequently, how we choose to live and die.
Von Trier is after big fish in Nymphomaniac, and the results are uneven but never dull. His ambition is admirable, and his courage to push the envelope is his greatest strength as a filmmaker. Nympho Vol. II’s conclusion, which may shock you, is disconcerting in that it seems both ham-fisted and inevitable. It begs the question: If Joe were a he instead of a she, would her dark, complex sexual past even bear remarking?