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Arts and Entertainment

'Nymphomaniac' Returns With Brutal S&M In 'Volume II'

Charlotte Gainsbourg in 'Nymphomaniac: Volume II', a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Christian Geisnaes
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Lars von Trier's overlong, messy and kind of dumb sexual odyssey of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) finally reaches its conclusion. Buoyed by a great performance from Gainsbourg, Nymphomaniac Vol. II packs more intellectual and emotional heft than its predecessor. Vol. II picks up where Vol. I left off, with Joe reunited by sheer chance with the one man (aside from her father) who found the way into her heart: Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf).

The second volume is also framed by Joe telling her story to a man who provides her shelter, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), and it's divided into chapters like the first volume (this is the same movie, after all, just split in two). Vol. II moves along at a more easygoing pace, using three subdivisions instead of five, and the pace of Joe's sexual conquests always slows. The erudite digressions from Seligman also feel less dunderheaded in this half. Charlotte Gainsbourg takes over the role from actress Stacy Martin as Joe becomes older and a mother. Despite domestic bliss and a child with Jerôme, there's still a great void within Joe.

Where she was sidelined as the narrator in the first volume, Gainsbourg now dominates the screen. Martin's portrayal of Joe was so intentionally alienating and detached from any other human in sight (beating Scarlett Johansson as the first alien sex fiend to hit the screen this year) that it feels almost like an entirely different character. Gainsbourg gives Joe a forceful assuredness and weary sadness that is undeniably magnetic and compelling.

Because of her insatiability, her relationship with Jerôme on the rocks ("When you buy a tiger... you also have to feed it," he says to her). So Joe is given carte blanche to sleep with other men again. Regaining her freedom, she wills her way to an unwilling dom simply known as K (Jamie Bell). Where Vol. I hit you over the head with montage after montage of clinically presented sex acts, the pièce de résistance of the entire work comes in Vol. II, as a series of brutal S&M scenes. Let's just say there's no safeword.

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She is unable to control her impulses to visit K, letting it endanger the life of her child and tear apart her marriage. Joe does what the most prudish of audience members who have somehow made it far this would've been clamoring for her to do all along: admits to herself to therapy. But she shuns its sex negativity, declaring "I am a nymphomaniac and I love my filthy, dirty lust" in a therapy session and storms out. She figures out how to channel her abilities into a clandestine career, working for an underworld figure of indeterminate trade (Willem Dafoe) that seems to put Joe back on feet, only to stammer back into the vortex that leads her to wind up bloody and beaten in the alleyway at the beginning of Vol. I.

Nymphomaniac still remains somewhat unsatisfying and feels incomplete, as the many plot digressions quickly lead us to narrative and emotional dead ends. Ever the prankster, von Trier doesn't even allow for the audience or Joe to land on a grace note, suddenly pulling the rug out from under us in its final and unexpected moment. It's Gainsbourg's fortitude that is the heart and soul of the film. Much like von Trier's previous film, Melancholia, the beauty of the tragic woman's grace amidst a downward spiral of misery draws you in.

Nymphomaniac Vol. II is available On Demand and on iTunes. It will be released in theaters on Friday, April 4th, nationwide. In Los Angeles it will open at the Nuart Theatre (West LA).

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