Saturday, April 5, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW Nymphomaniac Vol. II
Mr. Von Trier's Neighborhood And Its Visceral Volatility

Kookie Ryan, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Papou in Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac Vol. II".
  Magnolia Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, April 5, 2014

The second half of Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac", aka "Nymphomaniac Vol. II", is a visceral, blunt force trauma for the viewer, projected from the bowels of a director whose lead character digs deeper into her humanity rather than apologize for it.  Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is an anarchist if not an outright nihilist.  Her passionless philosophical exchanges and debates with her host Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) remain tedious and banal though are more urgent.

Joe tortures herself for her hypersexual activity but rebels against the staid society that stigmatizes her.  That society remains unseen on screen but Mr. Von Trier, who made comments at Cannes three years ago about Nazis, is speaking directly to the audience.  He, through Joe, calls us hypocrites, artificial beings who safely shun their true selves for distance, elevation and self-righteousness.  Mr. Von Trier, however, more than occasionally engineers these assertions through layers of pretension and élan.  His imagery is relatively safe even as Joe's sexual adventures become more sadist and masochistic, causing her to put her marriage and motherhood at risk.

"Nymphomaniac" is Mr. Von Trier's inner monologue, a labored but intriguing four-hour answer to his Cannes calamity.  Mr. Von Trier wants freedom, and he advocates that nature represents freedom, no matter how dangerous that nature is.  We are drawn to the forbidden, for it excites us, he posits.  We are drawn to danger because it keeps us alive.  We are turned on by what a puritanical and sanctimoniously moral society says we're not supposed to be.  These aren't novel revelations in "Nymphomaniac Vol. II" but defiant statements through Joe's behavior and the mathematical analytical discussions and names (M, K, P, Mrs. H, etc.) that form a curious algebra.  The bees and birds we see are but a mere preview of the wolves and sacrificial lambs to come.  Primal beasts will reign.

Like any of us Joe is an inherently complex character.  Joe's self-hatred and self-abandon is betrayed by her fierce commitment to non-violence even as her sexual appetites and addictions cause great violence to herself.  Ms. Gainsbourg perfectly represents the yin and yang of Joe, her face both angelic and harshly angular, at times even Paleolithic.  Such is the discourse between she and Mr. Skarsgard that they seem to be classmates studying for a final exam about sex, diagnosing sex as an illness rather than a natural human behavior.  Seligman says he is asexual.  He is confounded by Joe, fascinated, jealous, curious and repelled by her.  These are feelings Mr. Von Trier fully expects his audience to experience. 

Mr. Von Trier is a relentless, restless provocateur, eager to stir thought as much as he is sheer outrage.  An atheist by trade, he's liable to pour gasoline on a church and set it on a hellish blaze.  In "Vol. II" he specializes in destroying the property of the affluent, indicting their vicissitudes and limitations almost to the point of pity.  In one scene Joe, delivers a sexual punch-line that is self-congratulation and endorsement and a volatile stir of feelings. 

A scene with two naked black men, erections in medium close-up as they argue in an African language over which of them will have sex first with Joe is clearly designed to make you cringe, laugh or boil over in anger.  Yet it could be an indictment of racial stereotype, an endorsement of it, or both.  If societies weren't racist a non-pornographic image of two black men and a white woman together sexually wouldn't be an issue or push buttons, and I think that's the larger point Mr. Von Trier is making, however incendiary or insulting some will feel the image in the film is.

The chapters that play throughout Mr. Von Trier's four-hour dissertation of anthropology and base -- seven chapters if I remember correctly -- could be modeled on Marcel Proust's legendary In Search Of Lost Time, the epic seven-part novel which includes chapters about young girls, fugitives and prisoners, each of which Joe is.  (Joe's child in "Vol. II" is named Marcel, and she perceives herself as constantly being judged by him.)  Mr. Von Trier has shown a derision, even distaste of children as meddlesome and useless creatures, a source of deep guilt for adults ("Anti-Christ") or grateful sacrifice ("Dancer In The Dark").

Joe, a self-persecutor who represents part of a larger Sodom and Gomorrah (also in Proust's writings), wants freedom of sexual exploration for a higher truth about herself as a person but she's somewhat trapped by it.  Joe's biggest orgasmic release, of the many she has, is her completion of the epic story of her sexual life that she has told her singular captive male, Seligman.  Throughout the film, there's a wildlife in reverse, enacted by humans indulging in animal acts.  There's a pleasant satisfaction Joe, herself a provocateur, wears as she finishes her tale.  It's a release of tension and relief that brings her peace.  Joe seems to have tortured Seligman psychologically at the same time.  "You have fucked thousands of men," he intones, in anger and bewilderment.

"Nymphomaniac Vol. II" or its predecessor aren't about sex as much as punishment and the gratification its enactment brings.  The film is about the mental attitude toward sex, not the physical language it embodies.  All of Joe's sexual encounters are acted out as rebellion, contempt or anger.  Joe has no safe words with K (Jamie Bell), who treats her like a horse at the Kentucky Derby.  Joe indulges the spankings and their resulting orgasmic pleasures.  Many who watch Mr. Von Trier's film no doubt enjoy these acts as turn-ons privately.  It's a calculated move, an equation tested by director for its desired effect.

I don't think any of "Nymphomaniac" is meant to be titillating but Mr. Von Trier shows us things societies have highly objectified or deemed controversial.  At times he could be having fun at the audience's expense, with characters who defend racist or sexist utterances as natural human responses however repulsive.  

"Vol. II" is less scenic, more urgent and spare.  Part comedy, part tragedy, the film is a mix of pop-art, agitation, professorial tutorial and bedtime story for grown-ups.  "Nymphomaniac Vol. II" sometimes is a preachy, condescending article (predictable conversation about double standards regarding a woman's sexual exploits) but I think it is also a genuine one.  Its most skillful touch is the one that comes in its climax (no pun intended), a revelation consistent with an unmasking that in retrospect isn't truly surprising, even though it stunned me at the time.  Mr. Von Trier knows very well what he's doing, and like Michael Haneke he often does it quite well, though he's more spectacularly extravagant and far less discreet with the potency of his imagery.

With: Stacy Martin, Shia LaBoeuf, Willem Dafoe, Uma Thurman.

"Nymphomaniac Vol. II" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  It contains graphic male and female full frontal nudity, strong explicit sexual content, bodily fluids, extremely harsh sexual violence and language.  The film's running time is two hours and four minutes. 

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