I'll preface this review with an obligatory warning: If you ever intend to experience Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" and you haven't seen "Vol. 1," stop reading now.
"Nymphomaniac: Vol. II" completes the misanthropic Danish filmmaker's journey into the dark heart and mind of sex addict Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who chronicles her empty existence to the amateur philosopher Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) after he finds her beaten and bloodied in an alley near his home.
This continuation accelerates the grim turn begun at the end of "Vol. 1," when Joe (played by Stacy Martin in her younger years) loses touch with her sexual feelings while in bed with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Joe hits the nadir of her lifelong struggle with her addiction here, abandoning any hope of a normal life and disappearing into a haze of sadomasochism amid her struggle to orgasm again.
This second part crystallizes ideas that seemed partially formed in the first volume, as "Nymphomaniac" shows itself to be most engaged in shattering the tenuous divide between man and beast by portraying a woman on an endless, destructive search for unattainable satisfaction with little regard for the consequences.
Joe is a single-minded, destructive force, although she's also pathetically, deeply alone. Gainsbourg builds on the groundwork Martin laid in the first movie, layering the obsessive self-interest with a strong sense of shame.
This is, however, a fundamentally nihilistic enterprise, despite Seligman's endless intellectual digressions and the callbacks to Joe's childhood that are geared toward cracking the icy façade. There's a lot of gibberish, an abiding sense of Von Trier losing control of the narrative.
When the filmmaker exactingly quotes a scene from his prior movie "Antichrist," down to the slow-motion snowfall, the dread-filled sight of a baby making his way toward an opening window and Handel on the soundtrack, it's clear that he's just messing with us.
Von Trier strains to sustain Joe's journey over the course of what is ultimately a four-hour enterprise. There's a sort of internal war apparent in the way things play out; Joe grows increasingly more relatable as the story around her devolves into sustained convolutions. It's a distancing effect that might well be deliberate but effectively torpedoes any hope of meaningful engagement with the content onscreen.
The movie, then, plays like one of Seligman's extended digressions about rock climbing or the Whore of Babylon. It's a parable, a metaphor, a detour, a film that calls attention to its construction so relentlessly that its emotional impact is fleeting at best.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf
Playing at Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, Landmark Sunshine, on VOD