Saturday, March 29, 2014

You Want Pain?: Darker "Nymph()maniac: Vol. II" rubs our noses in the muck



Nymph()maniac: Volume II (2014)  
123 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).

Lars von Trier is truly one of a kind. He is either a brilliant artist or so pretentious that he thinks shocking and alienating his audience will start a conversation. Truth is, he has even less to say this time around, except maybe, "love sucks" and "addiction warrants punishment." Taken as its own film, "Nymphomaniac: Volume II" might come full circle, bringing more shape, darkness, and context to Joe's "sinful" sexual journey than "Volume I." However, despite the filmmaker's will to disturb and provoke discussion about female sexuality, his film is still a gruelingly downbeat, emotionally impenetrable wallow of clinical remove and newly added bondage to ensure that none of this will arouse. It might even turn everyone off from sex altogether. 

Last time on "Nymphomaniac"… Impure, self-hating nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) still sits in bed, sipping tea and telling her piece to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who found her beaten in an alleyway and lets her rest in his flat. When we last found Joe (continued to be played by Stacy Martin), she felt nothing in the bedroom with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) with whom she ended up having a child with. By day, she would pretend to go to work as a piano teacher when she'd start up her cycle of man-eating. As Joe ages (this is where Martin hands the baton to Gainsbourg), she storms out of a 12-step meeting for sex addicts, the leader rejecting the term "nymphomaniac," and takes up working as a "debt collector" for the unscrupulous L (Willem Dafoe). The desperate Joe even sends a translator across the street from her apartment to invite two black brothers for a threesome. At night, instead of watching her child, Joe would sneak off to be "cured" by receiving masochistic spankings from aggressive sadist K (an effectively stone-cold Jamie Bell, no longer Billy Elliot), who would call her "Fido." Her journey of self-destruction never ends and, although she calls herself a "bad human being," Joe meets a few worse people.

For better or for worse, "Nymphomaniac," in both of its parts, feels like a full-bore Lars von Trier movie. The film is a frank and purposefully cold deconstruction of addiction, but there's little heartbreak to Joe's damaged tale. If "Volume I" was by turns compulsively compelling and pretentious, and it had welcome moments of power and levity (primarily Uma Thurman's fiery performance and Seligman's absurd connections to sex), "Volume II" is punishing and unpleasantly grim, placing a distance between the audience and what's up on the screen. Everyone is a cog in von Trier's hopeless, awful-from-their-head-to-their-toes wheel, including P (Mia Goth), a young woman who becomes Joe's lover for a short while. The bookending framework is still claustrophobically confined to Seligman's flat, although we do learn something about Seligman, and those quantitative thrusts (3+5) do return when we come to see how Joe ended up in that alleyway. The lightest moment comes fast and early in a fancy restaurant (with their waiter being played by Udo Kier), where Joe follows through on Jerôme's dare to fit as many spoons as she can between her legs underneath the table cloth. When they get up to leave, each drop clangs to the floor, and they rush out giggling. Otherwise, the BDSM scenes with Joe and K are unflinching and painful, rubbing our noses in the smut and Joe's bleeding behind as if this were "The Passion of the Nympho."

The performers put themselves out there, again, especially Gainsbourg. She bares it all, physically and emotionally, but Joe is still such a hard, closed-off character to pin down. That is most likely the filmmaker's point, but such detachment doesn't help us little people watching. Though exceedingly well shot by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, "Nymphomaniac" has none of von Trier's striking, painterly tableaux, especially that of "Melancholia." The film also recalls his own opening scene from "Antichrist," where a child climbs and may or may not fall to his death to the musical compositions of Georg Friedrich Handel's operatic aria "Rinaldo."

As the Danish bad boy has made many films that abuse and push his female protagonists through the slime of life, many have criticized him for being misogynistic. "Nymphomaniac" might not be misogynistic as much as it might be a sly feminist manifesto. It could be dismissed as being a pornographic skin flick, but again, it's not the least erotic. The explicit scenes are there to inform who Joe is, but we keep being informed of what we already know. Ultimately, it's just an unproductive put-on. If "Volume I" wasn't your cup of kaffe, "Volume II" deserves an even wider berth, going down like black tar. As this exhausting opus reaches its cynical, feel-bad denouement, it seems the joke was on us all along, so there's a good chance the viewer, like Joe, will feel nothing. Lars, this concludes your "Trilogy of Depression."

Grade: C - 

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