3:52 PM EDT, April 3, 2014
Now available on demand and in the odd theater, "Nymphomaniac: Vol. II" continues the story of Joe, the restless, compulsive and increasingly masochistic character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. In the first of Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" films, released a few weeks ago, Joe is discovered beaten and bloodied in an alley near the apartment of Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a solitary bachelor who offers comfort and hot tea to this forlorn stranger.
The confessional begins, as do the flashbacks broken up by impishly titled chapters. At the start of "Vol. ll," Joe recalls her cushy but uneasy existence as a family woman, a few years earlier, having moved in with her former co-worker (Shia LaBeouf, the latest von Trier version of threatened, and threatening, manhood) and their young son.
It's difficult, we learn, this business of arranging sitters in order to sneak away to have another bruising encounter with a riding crop-and-bondage maestro (Jamie Bell) and then integrating that with your "normal" life. For all the full-frontal provocations in von Trier's film, it's these punishing flashbacks delineating Joe's descent that may cross some sort of line with viewers.
We'll leave it to the forthcoming film version of "Fifty Shades of Grey" to bring fabulous mainstream glamour to this master/slave dynamic. Writer-director von Trier is a more clinical fellow. Joe subjugates herself in order to regain her now-benumbed sense of sexuality. She wants her life back, as she says, and although she tries group therapy with some fellow sex addicts, she realizes she doesn't like the "addict" label and will return to her sexual-outlaw existence one way or another.
As Joe and Seligman continue their informal therapy session into the wee hours, "Vol. II" turns into a battle (like most von Trier films) between the filmmaker's baser instincts and his searching ones. In part one, the better picture, we sense degradations and punitive measures coming 'round the mountain, because it's a von Trier film and the women always suffer in a von Trier film, extravagantly, painfully. What is "Vol. II" saying, in the end? Men, all sorts, want the same thing from women.
The complicating and rewarding factor in both halves is Gainsbourg, whose gravity has a way of grounding even the silliest and most excessive impulses on view. She seems at once engaged and slightly dazed by what's required of her here. Seligman characterizes Joe's life as a war "against the gender that had been oppressing and mutilating and killing you and billions of women." This is von Trier speaking, I think, and he knows full well he has spent much of his career oppressing and mutilating and killing various female protagonists himself. Well, he'd argue the "oppressing" part of it.
The other complication with any von Trier project? His visual and dramatic instincts, his skill at setting up and confounding expectations, can be brilliant. He's the most notorious and controversial of any serious international filmmaker. "Vol. II" is a bit of a haul, though. There's a moment near the end when, lying in the alley, Joe suffers a climactic indignity at the hands of her tormentors. Once she sees what she sees, Gainsbourg gives a little "what, this too?" sigh, and it's like an actress speaking in code. The full four-hour load is a paradoxically methodical picaresque of an ever-darker hue. "Vol. I" works. "Vol. II" works you over, and von Trier likes it like that.
'Nymphomaniac: Vol. II' - 2 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (explicit sexual content and violence)
Running time: 1:58
Opens: Friday. Also available on demand.
Copyright © 2015 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC