“I’m a virgin. I’m innocent.”
I had heard there was a drop off in quality with Nymphomaniac: Vol. II compared to the first half, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how far. A much crueler portion of the tale, the second part of Lars von Trier‘s sex epic is also more outlandish as new characters are introduced with cartoonish demeanors and old ones proven to seemingly evolve against everything we had already learned about them for no reason other than the filmmaker’s attempt to sensationalize. What makes this so unfortunate is that Volume I appeared so intent to do exactly the opposite. Everything built beyond the pornographic aspect is basically thrown away or parodied in such a fashion that I must believe von Trier did it intentionally. Maybe his plan was releasing it as two films from the start to ensure this effect.
There are some brilliant moments—conversation starters I was thrilled and excited to think about afterwards if my curiosity wasn’t satisfied during the runtime. Just look at the revelation occurring within the first five minutes about our stand-in Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) and why he’s constantly able to see past the sexuality and go directly towards the scientific analogy or pedantic interpretation devoid of emotionality. Here was a man self-pronounced to be the very antithesis of his ward and our storyteller Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a truth holding infinite potential to shoot past the desire of quantifying her words with meaning rather than quickly agreeing with her belief it was all done with malicious intent. Lo and behold, his sexuality was but a long con manipulation for a clichéd ending that only made me angrier upon its conclusion.
And that’s saying something considering how much I enjoyed the first installment of von Trier’s diptych. To go from such heights to the bitter taste of deception as though the auteur consciously threw a wrench into the whole thing as a “fuck you” to all who were willing to sit through its five and a half hour runtime is nothing more than a blindsided smack to the face. Moments like his blatant inclusion of his camera framed in a mirror for all to see almost exactly halfway through as it’s shooting itself—at 1:27:59 to be exact—arrive with mystery and intrigue before disappearing without purpose. Clues to a puzzle that doesn’t exist, it’s like von Trier is baiting us to hold this piece of art as something more despite him making it as porn, plain and simple.
Why else remove the fully formed characters from Volume I and replace them with caricatures? Why introduce sadist K (Jamie Bell) and have him provide Joe the room to become as heinous as humanly possible considering she was at that time a mother entrusted to watch her son while the child’s father (Shia LaBeouf‘s Jerôme) was at work? Why turn a realistic look at a woman dealing with her sexuality and the emotional numbness of love after the person she cared about most (her father played by Christian Slater) was gone into a mob film wherein she extorts rich men for money on behest of her over-the-top criminal boss L (Willem Dafoe)? The amount of eye-rolling I performed was too much, but at least I had Seligman to call her out on her bullshit. Right?
Wrong. Not only does she finally neuter him and silence his ever-inquisitive brain with the subject of abortion—a debate continuing in such detail that von Trier must want to incite riots in the theater—but she starts to toy with him as well. In one instance she pointedly tells him how whatever new digression he injected into her story was the weakest yet, an action flipping the whole dynamic of the film upside down from us relating to Seligman being rendered moot as it was now Joe commenting as though an outside viewer to the story. She also pulls a Keyser Söze in by explaining how every chapter title and plot progression idea came from an object in the room. And she conveniently alludes to blasphemous hallucinations that push credibility out the door while still feigning ignorance.
von Trier in effect defames her as a truth-teller, rendering everything I so rapturously clutched onto in Volume I as questionable fiction. And then he ensures to turn the one person untainted by nightmarish fairy tale whimsy in his entire movie into its most unforgivable culprit. It’s night and day with this half falling hard into farce, overlong sequences of depravity for no reason but to disgust and/or arouse viewers, and boring repetition seemingly set forth on a very clear agenda towards its tied in a bow finale. Hell, give me some sort of redemption with the young potential hoodlum (Mia Goth‘s P) whom Joe takes under her wing and at least trick me into believing I haven’t wasted my time. The most frustrating part is that von Trier probably sought to make me loathe what I did.
He’s taunting us by showing how much power he the filmmaker has over us the viewer. Sex becomes the metaphor for cinema and our predilections towards the emotions it’s able to stir within us. After all, he’s a storyteller just like Joe. And Seligman is the viewer listening anxiously to understand what fiction is being thrown his way. Better yet, this unbiased and completely objective gentleman is von Trier’s idea of a critic—someone who’s supposed to be impartially diagnosing what he sees onscreen despite everyone knowing subjectivity will break through. We watch and generalize and assume; much like Seligman does to engage in his final act before the cut to black. “Oh, this isn’t what you wanted from me, Lars? You aren’t a whore? My apologies.” Kudos to him if true, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
 Charlotte Gainsbourg
 Tania Carlin in NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME I & VOLUME II – EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Christian Geisnaes
 Charlotte Gainsbourg in NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME I & VOLUME II – EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Christian Geisnaes