After seeing the first part of Nymphomaniac, I was very much focused on the follow-up being better and more out there but it was soon clear that Volume II would not succeed where the first volume had. To be fair, this movie should be viewed as a whole, as it was intended, and splitting it in two might have taken from the second that power caused by the first part. In other words, due to the volumes being shown so separately (in my cinemas), the first felt more powerful while the second simply become disconnected from the stand-point of emotional repercussions.
Though I’m less thrilled about Volume II, that does not mean the movie itself was as weak as it might have come across from the intro and the rating. Nymphomaniac was simply better and I wanted that fact to be reflected in the rating; all together, all its 4 hours (the original cut is actually 5,5h long!), the movie is probably a whole different experience which I plan to enjoy in the future. Maybe even the 5,5h version that will premier this month because I’m curious to see what was left out and what felt unnecessary for the cinematic version whilst being important for von Trier.
Though it starts with young Joe’s (Stacy Martin) sort-of relationship with Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), Nymphomaniac: Volume II focuses more on the grown-up Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) trying to find her orgasms. Yes, that’s exactly what it was, Joe being so numb to everything sexual that she was pushing her limits to things she never thought she’d experience. From the almost threesome with two African brothers to the sadistic K (Jamie Bell) who had a knack for knots and an addiction to whipping. Out of the three chapters in Volume II, The Eastern and the Western Church (The Silent Duck), sub-chapter The Dangerous Men, The Mirror and The Gun, the one featuring Jamie Bell was probably the best one.
There was something about that chapter and K’s character that just stood out. There was even a scene that almost destroyed me emotionally but luckily the unimaginable never happened – for those who have seen the movie, I’m talking about the balcony scene with that eery background music. It was the closest to emotional the second part ever got and if it weren’t for that story line, I think I would have been a bit disappointed about Nymphomaniac as a whole. Bell was great by the way, probably because his character was so interesting to watch and his dynamic with Gainsbourg felt uncomfortably addictive in a way. Deep down though, I wished for more out of those two and to be honest, I wished more out of all the chapters.
Part of Joe’s story was also L (Willem Dafoe) and P (Mia Goth) – P gave her a job which meant she tortured people so they would pay up their debts and P was the young girl L asked Joe to train as her minion. There was an interesting relationship between Joe and P but it never felt as powerful as it could have. Either it was Goth’s lack of screen appeal or the overall disliking for that part of the story but for me, it was my least favorite plot line in the entire Nymphomaniac movie. And since it became the center of Volume II, I felt disconnected with it and lost interest right before the end decided to hit me where it hurts.
While all these stories where told by Joe to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), it was only natural that the movie would somehow tie all these chapters into a philosophical conclusion. So it did, it even had a visual connection between the Volume I as it started with the black screen and ended with one, all while we heard sounds of what was happening on the screen. It came as a shock really, the whole plot twist of Seligman being an asexual and a virgin and then suddenly a man filled with lust wanting to sleep with Joe. Was it logical? The idea of two opposites meeting and one then changing his personality so rapidly didn’t really feel right but in terms of the movie, it felt compelling.
I have to credit von Trier for delivering a rather complex story and provoking a lot of ideas throughout the entire Nymphomaniac experience. There are thoughts about childhood, lust, sex, feminism, motherhood, religion, violence and even the idea of suppressed desires somehow comes across as intriguing and truthful in a scary way. And even though all these ideas and thoughts where interesting, my favorite symbolism in Nymphomaniac was the simplest of all: the soul tree. When Joe was a kid, her father told her that one can see the souls of trees when they are bare with no leaves, and that his soul tree was a big oak. We learn that Joe has not yet found her soul tree but in Volume II she finds it, on top of the mountain, growing all alone among the rocks, a very lonely tree – her soul tree. For reasons I’m not very certain of, that idea of tree trunks being souls somehow had the strongest affect on me.
In the end though, when I try to put both movies together as a whole, I feel like the second part slowed down and lost its shock factor that was so evident in the first part. And yet, if I think about the plot and Joe’s life, and her loss of emotion and orgasms, Volume II and its difference of Volume I almost feels natural. Was it von Trier’s intent, who knows, but I can almost justify the chapters loosing power with Joe’s character loosing her sexuality. With that justification in mind, Nymphomaniac is powerful with its verbal and visual storytelling and not at all as sexually shocking as I expected. Yes, there are visuals that aren’t kid friendly but the scene with two African brothers almost had a comedic taste to it, despite the giant black cocks being the visual focus of it all. Would I consider it von Trier’s best? I’m probably not the right person to answer that question but I do know that as an idea, Nymphomaniac is stronger than Melancholia (2011), but as a movie with all of its elements, the latter was more powerful.3