Lars von Trier’s films are not best approached rationally. If ever a director welcomed the haphazardly coincidental, the radically non-causal, the denial of directorial authority, it’s Von Trier. Even as he re-defines himself formally and thematically from film to film, this is a red thread that it’s impossible to ignore.
But why would we want to? Nymph()maniac II is many things and many of them are not especially attractive: body fluids of varying viscosity, self-love and self-hate – the mechanisms of relationships. Forget the candor of Lie With Me and the dark distress of Blue Velvet. This is something else: a visceral exploration of female sexuality in a man’s world, way beyond the pale of what’s considered normal.
Nymph()maniac I presented the titular character Joe discovered bloody and beaten by the elderly Seligman (Skarsgård), who took her home and listened to her account of a childhood discovery and delight in sexuality. Vol. II starts with Joe’s (now chiefly played by a Gainsbourg) inability to square sexuality and love in the much-yearned-for relationship with J (LaBeouf). Attempting to satisfy her need for purely physical satisfaction, J encourages Joe to seek partners unburdened by love: a course of action that ultimately leads her to question the morality of her inclinations. Seeking sexually explicit forms of punishment with K (Jamie Bell) compounds her socially-marked otherness.
As she sits in Seligman’s sparsely furnished room counting down a litany of alphabetically arraigned lovers, Gainsbourg’s preternaturally serene Joe uses visual stimuli (a religious icon, a mirror, a tea stain) to chapter her own stimulus-addicted life in a spirit of will-full arbitrariness. Her version of events is both explored and denied by Seligman’s matching – and sometimes heavy-handed – digressions into the pedantry of formulaic religion and psychology. This is a hugely complex process, simultaneously demanding empathy and distance from protagonists and audience. It’s punctuated by more stimuli: blasts of iconic anthems from Bach, Mozart and Franck as well as Talking Heads and Gainsbourg herself, underscoring the sensual at the expense of accountability and convention. Acknowledging this, Von Trier also acknowledges his impotence, closing the film (no spoiler) with a blank screen: a void into which sex and morality descend into the same terrifying darkness that ended part II of his depression trilogy, Melancholia.
Nymph()maniac II | Directed by Lars von Trier (Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, UK 2013) with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård and Shia LaBeouf. Starts April 3
Originally published in issue #126 April, 2014