Climax, by Scott Nye
With Volume II now seen and considered, I’ve come to suspect that Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a joke. I don’t mean this is the derogatory sense, though I suspect von Trier does. It’s not a joke in the sense that it can be easily cast aside or laughed at and forgotten. It is simply operating in the kind of comedic register one rarely sees onscreen, a kind of cosmic joke at the expense of the protagonist, and, in a sense, humanity as a whole. In some ways, this is what von Trier does best, and perhaps I am simply not the best viewer to properly appreciate it, for as much as the whole exercise was intriguing, challenging, often actually laugh-out-loud funny, and pleasingly insightful about the difficulty of managing one’s pleasures in a civilized society, I don’t mind admitting a certain amount of revulsion at its ultimate conclusion, a reaction no doubt desired by its maker. Rare is the film that achieves its mighty ambitions yet scorns my heart, but, well, I’m only human.
I will assume in this review that you have at least seen Volume I, and note that things pick up here right where they left off there, with Joe (played as a young woman by Stacy Martin, and in middle age by Charlotte Gainsbourg) continuing to recount her sexual exploits to the compassionate but not entirely empathetic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), whose method of comprehending her astounding lust has continuously proven to be both scientific and utterly unenlightening, a trait Joe wonderfully calls out early on here by remarking, “That is, without a doubt, your least interesting discursion thus far.” Where the two seemed somewhat in harmony in Volume I, they are almost immediately put at odds in Volume II, as Joe picks up at the moment when she lost all feeling in her vagina, a rather alarming development for anyone, but particularly someone accustomed to finding sexual pleasure some half-a-dozen times per evening, as Joe was then.
One can imagine that the quest to regain the feeling, both literal and figurative, that she once had will be an especially grim one, especially with a guy like Lars von Trier at the helm, and whatever his reductive conclusions may be, I will say that I admire the man’s willingness to commit wholly to the path on which he has set himself. There’s some truly unnerving paths Joe sets herself upon, each one curiouser, darker, and more compelling than the last. In my review of Volume I, I mentioned that Gainsbourg’s voiceover lends context and perspective to the actions of her younger self, a trait still somewhat present in Volume II, but which, given that Gainsbourg has taken over the entirety of the role, less urgently present. Even if one recognizes that some of this stuff must have happened many years ago, the lack of change in Gainsbourg’s appearance lends it the feeling of recency. Instead, the voiceover becomes a way to intellectualize the horrors she, and, by extension, we, are forced to face, a tactic not dissimilar to the Brechtian artifice of von Trier’s Dogville.
But even more so than with Volume I, the focus is less and less on what has happened to Joe than what is happening in the present, between her and Seligman. We come to discover quite early on what motivates his more intellectual and somewhat bemused reaction to her debauchery, casting a new light not just on the events of the previous installment, but creating a forbidding sense of what’s to come. As much as Joe’s insatiable hunger is the topic of the film, it is just as much about what we force to remain dormant, a notion most potently expressed when, late in the film, Joe is working as a rather forceful debt collector, and forces a man to pay up by unlocking his repressed pedophiliac desires. While Seligman has spent most of their time together offering more understanding and compassion than she expected or has seemingly experienced in the past, this revelation is too much for him, while she finds it noble that the man in question managed to wrestle his desire deep down without ever acting upon it. Seligman’s compassion comes somewhat naturally, but there are still some elements of life better left to experience, no matter how torrid.
Perhaps these insights and provocations are enough to recommend the film on. I certainly got quite a lot out of the total experience. That only makes von Trier’s characteristic reductivism all the more disappointing; as though the sum of his wrestling and uncertainty can be so easily concluded, even tidily wrapped up. I may feel differently about it in a week, or a year, or ten. It’s too thorny, ill-tempered, and well-considered to be written off entirely, nor quickly and safely surmised. It defies the weekly sort of review I’ve just now presented here. Do with that what you will.