Continuing his two-part sex addiction saga, Lars Von Trier goes to some dark places in "Nymphomaniac: Vol. II". Clearly he was just getting warmed up, as the lead character's escapades become more intense and severe. As with the first installment, it's uncensored and shocking, but does the prolonged storytelling sustain its intrigue?
It's perhaps pertinent to state that I liked "Nymphomaniac: Vol. I". I found it mostly captivating, partially due to the novelty of its explicit approach and also due to the daring artistry employed by Von Trier. However, after seeing these two films within quick succession, it soon became clear that the plot isn't nearly has substantive as one would hope.
The film picks up from its prequel where our lead character Joe is suddenly unable to feel the sensations of sexual activity. Shattered by this misfortune, she decides to challenge herself by engaging with even more extreme behaviour than we'd witnessed previously. Eventually, Joe's sexual desires end up incorporating pain (through BDSM) and it's around that point where the film becomes tiring. As we follow her descent into darkness, the barrage of unpleasant imagery just becomes too much. What started out as a fascinating artistic endeavour eventually devolved into a case of overindulgent filmmaking.
Indeed, the style of the film certainly reflects an auteur's vision and it was a strong reminder that I was lacking in my knowledge of the director's work. Perhaps I should have expected something more like "Antichrist" rather than the more thematically-rich and narrative-driven thrills of "Melancholia". Prior to this pair of films, I had only seen "Melancholia" from Von Trier's filmography so I never fully understood his reputation for putting his actresses through hell for the role. In that film, the challenges placed on Kirsten Dunst (in a brilliant performance) seemed like they were geared towards testing her emotional depth. In this case though, it actually felt like Charlotte Gainsbourg was going through a torturous experience. Many of her present-day scenes with Skarsgaard are delivered in a subdued, mundane manner, while her flashbacks seemed to be just a series of endless discomfort. As a result, it never felt like a performance that required much skill. Like the plot, there wasn't much substance in the acting under all the surface-level shock value. I hate to use the word pretentious, but the philosophical analyses of Joe's sex life, in addition to the convenience of the narrative device (Joe's confidant Seligman seems too perfectly matched for a random savior), were the source of much eye-rolling. If this is what his other films are like, then maybe Von Trier's brand of filmmaking just isn't for me.
Early on in this duology, Joe establishes her perspective by claiming that her only sin is that she always "demanded more from the sunset". The statement seems to suggest that we are dealing with a woman with vitality and a passion for life, explored through an unquenchable desire for sex. However, by the time we reach the events of Vol II, the character seems to be handicapped by this addiction, unable to truly live her life to the fullest. Perhaps that's the point, but for the audience member it results in a film that ultimately fails to stimulate.