I take it all back. Nymphomaniac sucks.
The first half of Lars Von Trier’s two-volume biography of a self-described nymphomaniac, played as a young woman by Stacy Martin and as an older woman by Charlotte Gainsbourg, was one of the director’s most sensitive works. No easy feat. In many respects Von Trier is one of the most emotional filmmakers working today, and no slouch from a technical perspective. His two Nymphomaniacs are drenched in uncanny imagery and mostly-successful cinematic experimentation. They are orgasmic, exhausting motion pictures with rich characters and a borderline profound concoction of sensitivity and humiliation, of objectivity and horror.
But Nymphomaniac, Vol. I was a promise that Nymphomaniac, Vol. II has no desire to keep. When we last left Joe she was, in the present, telling an asexual benefactor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) her detailed life story, replete with eroticism and shame. She was a proud woman who took responsibility for her sexual voraciousness but was open about its downsides. By the end of her seemingly countless sexual escapades, Nymphomaniac, Vol. I left us with an uncomfortable cliffhanger: this woman, who defined herself by her search for sexual pleasure, had lost the ability to orgasm.
Nymphomaniac, Vol. II finds Joe in a close approximation of a happy relationship, sexually dissatisfying but at least passingly connected to her husband Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and her newborn son. But to fill “all her holes,” she begins to pursue more dangerous and uncomfortable sexual experiences, leading her to a particularly odd sexual encounter with two men who can’t decide the best way to fuck her simultaneously and an eerie, unusual non-relationship with a sadist played by Jamie Bell.
Lars Von Trier plays at luridness but, as with the first volume, finds a happy medium between the sensual and the logical by placing Joe’s personal involvement next to Seligman’s forgiving, analytical reactions. As Joe’s journey takes her deeper into violence, transforming her damn near into a Batman villain by the movie’s end, Von Trier successfully places her sometimes unthinkable actions into a genuinely beautiful context. Even her reaction to meeting a pedophile, shocking though it may be, feels like the behavior of a damn near saint, albeit a highly unorthodox one.
But Lars Von Trier can’t help but be Lars Von Trier: a genius at the mercy of his own cruel sense of humor. While some of Von Trier’s motion pictures take advantage of a last minute reversal to challenge the audience’s interpretations of everything that came before them (the last few shots of Breaking the Waves are a triumphant combination of faith and cynicism), in some movies it just seems like he’s being a dick. Nymphomaniac, Vol. II concludes with a twisted joke that makes both movies seem like a four-hour set up to a particularly vicious dead baby joke.
What’s worse, Von Trier doesn’t even seem to think it’s that funny. The long-awaited finale to Nymphomaniac plays like an inevitable tragedy even though it requires characters to behave wildly outside of their personalities in order to justify its existence. It’s like he just got bored at the last possible moment, and instead of just cutting to the credits and ending on a satisfactory, well-earned conclusion he decided this whole sympathetic enterprise was a waste of his cynical time.
It’s more than obvious that Lars Von Trier is trying to get a rise of out of his audience by concluding the Nymphomaniac saga on a “shocker,” but unlike his better twisted punchlines, he hasn’t invented one here that ekes out a shameful satisfaction. Nymphomaniac completely erases the previous four hours on what looks like a stupid whim. I’m not angry at the story for reaching an unpalatable conclusion, I’m not angry at the characters for making bad decisions, and I’m not angry at the world for making the film’s last few moments possible. I am pissed off at a filmmaker who lacked the strength of conviction necessary to end his four-hour movie on a note that makes any damned sense after everything we just watched.
In a vacuum, Nymphomaniac, Vol. I may turn out to be one of the best films of Lars Von Trier’s career, but in context with his follow-up – and all because of a scant few seconds – Nymphomaniac, Vol. II, and indeed the whole infernal enterprise, is one of his lamest attempts at gotcha gimmickry.