When Harvey Weinstein made Kill Bill become Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, Quentin Tarantino included a previously on segment, reminiscent of the old serial TV shows like Flash Gordon, to facilitate the move from one part to the next. It provided a natural and tonally appropriate sequitur between the two bifurcated parts and helped maintain the illusion they were meant to be two movies all along. Nymphomaniac Part II begins quite differently, with a seemingly innocuous image of Joe bundled up in a bed with blue covers. To say it starts In medias res is misleading, since had the film not been cut in two, the sequence that served as the finale of Nymphomaniac Part I—Joe summarizes different sexual experiences through the metaphor of music, all for an emotional payoff with one of her relationships—would have soon clashed with a hard cut for dramatic effect. Nymphomaniac Part II begins with that ‘hard cut’, so the dramatic effect of the initial cut is lost. I won’t describe the implications of how the scene would’ve played had it remained united, other than to say its meaning is necessarily mutilated and obscured. Although maybe not a big deal to itself, it’s a poor introduction to the movie since it isn’t an introduction at all. It isn’t a continuation either, since by starting a film with a hard cut, the narrative feels severed when it was merely supposed to feel very briefly halted. It’s a poor context through which to perceive the rest of the film, and it’s a credit to Nymphomaniac as a whole that this abrasive, maddening consequence of splitting the film in two is soon forgotten.
Nymphomaniac Part II is by far the darker of the two halves, though it’s better for it, with much less humor, lightness, and emotions that are easy for viewers to empathize with. Although Part I is told through the prism of morally depraved erotic expression, I understand coming of age. I understand rebellion. I understand coping with death. I understand hunger for expression. So do most viewers. Thus, Von Trier’s method is to have us relate and fight for Joe in the first half, so when he takes a plummeting turn towards nihilistic despair and emotional self-immolation in the second half, it’s too late. We’re hooked. Considering how alienating so much of the film’s material might be to so much of the potential audience, this is a brave and not altogether successful move. It’s also the half that transitions the flashback-narrative reigns from newcomer Stacy Martin over to Charlotte Gainsbourg. She gives an amazing performance of frightening fragility and consideration. No offense to the venerable job Martin does, considering she’s a newcomer and all, but you can tell when a thoroughbred is pulling the buggy.
It’s unfortunate but necessary that Seligman takes a back seat in Part II, although Stellan Skarsgård’s performance continues to wow. It must be said the rest of the supporting cast, this time including young up and comer Jamie Bell and Von Trier alumni Willem Dafoe (whom, by the way, I’m thrilled to see employed), perform with a trance-like artifice. It’s as though the on-set direction was “I want to see nothing but ghostly faces. Jamie, stop smiling. Willem, look less choleric. That’s it, that’s it, blank faces everyone!” The only exception is Shia’s performance as Jerome, but since he’s not horribly convincing, it becomes an unfunny joke that he has the same level of emotional depth as the deliberately static Bell and Dafoe. Their performances firstly serve as contrast to Charlotte’s fiery performance of emotional crescendos but also to give an emotional texture to the film that’s as drab as Nymphomaniac’s color palette. Von Trier made Nymphomaniac his most visually and tonally diverse film by far, where, instead of zeroing in on a specific feeling and finding creative ways to draw on that from the audience, he engages with different distinct tones and moods. The strangely robotic performances (that are clearly a machination of Von Trier) are one such example, but a more obvious one is how the entire visual style abruptly changes for each of the eight chapters Joe has to tell. There are squarely obvious ones, like black and white in Part I, but there’s even variation with the handheld style and with light exposure. The effect is for each chapter to feel more than just distinct. They’re congruous through contrast.
These are important details, but the main question is whether Nymphomaniac meets its rock-hard ambitions. A descent into aberrant sexuality might better be articulated in films like Sotoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue or David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., but perhaps Von Trier’s greatest debt is to Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Persona. In Persona, the subliminal sexual entrancement between two women grows into violence and self-destruction. Identity and sexuality are traded between them, and at great personal cost. Nymphomaniac continues the conversation begun by Persona, but instead of leading the discourse, it’s merely the friend who only ever repeats what the last person said through reshaped words. Still, even friends that are a walking works cited page occasionally offer a unique point of view. Von Trier struggles to innovate or reinvent any representation of sexuality, and one wonders if Nymphomaniac Parts I and II were condensed into a single two hour film made up of the bits exclusive to it instead of with bucket loads of quotations it would’ve been a more successful. At risk of sounding diffident, I’m not sure I agree with that interpretation. It’s entirely possible, likely even, that Von Trier’s goal was to represent the full spectrum of sexuality as related to the many other impulses of humankind. To do so, it is only logical he would have to include many quotations to other works, so the film’s repetitiveness could be seen as a necessary evil to provide a complete portrait of sexuality and eroticism. I don’t know if that’s a perfect interpretation either, but the film is so satisfying in so many ways, I have trouble truly complaining.
It’s the mark of an interesting film, if not a good one (and this is a good one), that the mere method of evaluating the work becomes a rich source for debate. Von Trier may have hoped Nymphomaniac to be a wholly original work, or maybe, as I described above, it was designed as a rich tapestry of sex as a whole. I don’t know, and you don’t know. Maybe Von Trier himself doesn’t even know. But does it matter? I can’t shake the feeling that more of Nymphomaniac could’ve broken new ground, or, in other words, been a more fertile work. Just like bands that release double albums, even if it’s the best work they’ve ever done, there are still more individual stinkers than previous records, i.e. filler. Between Shame and Blue is the Warmest Color, sexuality has been a prime topic for art filmmakers, and the colossal four hour running time comes under scrutiny. Interesting to note that Joe’s story has an audience in the film just as much as it does outside of it and, just like Skarsgård’s Seligman reacts with what he knows of himself and the world, so do we.
This entire review could become a tangent of how one idea tumbles into the next, such as by continuing the last point by remarking Seligman’s existence perpetuates a meta-narrative layer to the film by making the idea of spectatorship a self-conscious construct for viewers. Such is the way of Nymphomaniac, which itself is a series of tangents linked only by the deliverance of their wounded narrator. She says these events are meaningful, so then they must be. Likewise, if storytelling itself is an act of exposure, Seligman’s hilarious mosaic of references is a story to Joe about himself. In other words: If Joe reveals herself through a narrative that carries symbolic representations of her inner self, Seligman’s references simply remove the narrative aspect. We have a direct line to what matters to him. In this sense, there’s a debate between them throughout the film over which is the superior method in revealing oneself. I realize this is getting horribly heady and pretentious, but I’m certain Von Trier intended for viewers to realize this as Nymphomaniac II comes to a close. The indulgent genius of Nymphomaniac isn’t that it provokes sexual arousal, but that it provokes almost everything else.