Get Into the Gloom: Von Trier Evades Easy Answers in Darker Second Chapter of Sexual Odyssey
You can forget about love as well as any semblance of clarity on the subject of sexuality, female or otherwise by the end of Lars Von Trier’s final chapter of Nymphomaniac: Volume II, a darker, arguably more complicated experience than the first volume. While the chapter divisions tick on like the equally twee but dirty minded version of a Wes Anderson nightmare, the sexual journey of Joe as explained to the overly sympathetic Seligman, grinds forward to a halting denouement that should leave you with the bitter aftertaste Von Trier hopes you’ll have. At times uncomfortable, compelling, and repellant, Joe and Seligman are finally allowed to emerge as more realized characters in this second half, though never quite as fully as we’d like. In more extreme efforts to shock or dismay, the absence of titillation or anything remotely endearing seems perversely obliterated, Von Trier’s characters like the stubborn ‘soul tree’ Joe finally discovers, a mangled timber struggling to reach for the sky, hewn out of the rocky terrain from some isolated, unremarkable hill.
We left the young Joe (Stacy Martin) at an important juncture at the end of Part One, unable to feel anything more in her nether regions, howling in dismay. Well, come to find, Joe admits to Seligman she hasn’t actually experienced the big O since she was twelve, an experience so strong she actually lapsed into visions of the Whore of Babylon and the wife of Emperor Claudius, a notable nymphomaniac. Of course, it takes the indefatigably learned Seligman to interpret the dream. Joe relates the birth of her son and her marriage to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) as the domestic cage that annihilated all desire to the point where Jerome insists she sleep with other men, much to his own jealous undoing. Finally, we skip ahead three years to find young Joe (replaced with current Joe a la Gainsbourg), who begins to experiment with pleasure’s sister—pain. After a brief encounter with a pair of African men that don’t speak any English, Joe flocks to K (Jamie Bell), a sadist that has a throng of masochistic women scheduling weekly visits to his antiseptically rendered abode. Joe becomes obsessed with K’s treatments, which causes the undoing of her marriage and estranges her forever from her son. Taking an office job that finds her employer forcing her to seek help for her apparent addiction, Joe decides to embrace her nymphomania, even though the continual abuse to her nether regions has had seemingly irreparable physical effect. Taking a job as a debt collector in an illegal operation run by L (Willem Dafoe), Joe exceeds expectations and is soon running her own similarly themed business, which eventually finds her looking for a successor at the urging of L. And so, Joe takes the nubile P (Mia Goth) under wing, a teenager in need of love and warmth, raised with abandon amongst criminals. It’s the final chapter of Joe’s story, which leads right up to how Seligman found her, beaten down in the alley.
If Volume I indicated that we were headed into some kind of rational depiction of addiction and/or the tricky subject of sexuality, Von Trier, perhaps unsurprisingly, denies us the pleasure. Instead, we open with the ridiculous account of Joe’s 12 year old orgasm dream, followed by the predictability of domesticity as sexual nadir. Once we can finally leave behind the trap of LaBeouf (who is even more grating when he’s got to appear alongside Gainsbourg) and a silly escapade involving spoons (and an all too minimal role for Udo Kier as a waiter), we get into that infamous sequence from whence comes the widely publicized photo of Gainsbourg between two black men. They’re African and don’t speak any English, the language barrier and not their race being the impetus for the encounter. It’s meant to be provoking, this exposure to Joe of a world beyond her own, but instead feels undeveloped and superfluous. The ensuing debate Seligman has with Joe over the use of the word ‘negro’ and the dangers of removing words from circulation for the greater democratic good seems more of a personal aside for Von Trier than anything else.
As Seligman’s anecdotes get more obnoxious, we learn surprising details about his character, elevating him beyond a sonorous depth of random facts and mathematical aptitude. He considers himself asexual—a virgin, in fact, explaining his meager living conditions and inability to be titillated by Joe’s crass rendering of her sexual history. And, finally, Gainsbourg gets to step out from being more than the bored narrator (after four hours of time spent with her, she’s reminiscent of the friend who relishes the chance to expound on their sexual conquests, thinking absolute nonchalance adds scandalous flair) to actually inveigle the rather unlikeable Joe with more human attributes. Her experiences with a rather arresting Jamie Bell are the closest anything comes to being provocative, uncomfortable as they are to witness. Her rather predictable experience with group therapy finds Joe in the narrative’s greatest twist and one of the most uncomfortable sequences with a debtor (Jean-Marc Barr), who happens to be a pedophile.
Arguably, it’s a relief that there’s nothing concrete to be realized about female sexuality as Von Trier innately must realize that any such statement would be torn apart, endlessly analyzed and potentially dismissed. Instead, these contradictory volumes, seemingly at odds in tone, wisely leave us with endless questions to ponder (one which would be the inevitable STI ratio).
As fractured and ungainly a character as Joe is, even amidst many of Von Trier’s abused females, she’s only one person and a voice that can only speak for herself. If many of her exchanges with Seligman feel like Von Trier’s pointed provocation, there’s no doubt that Joe’s greatest realization is that her sexuality is her own. “No one can remove their sexuality, even though it’s destroying everything for them,” she quips. Likewise, their discussion on pedophilia brings up the notion that we’re all born with a sexuality, some, as Joe puts it, are unlucky enough to be born with a forbidden one.
Regardless of whether or not Joe is feminist character employing feminist agency through the lens of a masculine gaze, by the final credits one thing is for certain—Joe has control of all her faculties, and her sexuality is her own jurisdiction. While the aura of misogyny may always follow, and Nymphomaniac may not be his most fully realized film, its potency and power to generate discussion is inarguable.