Take a Walk on the Dark Side

Film review: Nymphomaniac Volume 2 (Director: Lars von Trier)

By Sascha Krieger

Strictly speaking, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a single film. Due to its length of well over four hours – the „long versions“ even combine to about five hours – he has split it into two volumes for theatrical release. One the one hand, this is a purely pragmatic decision, on the other it does have, as always with von Trier, artistic value. For one, it inserts an interval of reflection for the viewer: after the assault of any sort of sexual variations of Volume I, the audience can digest, try and make sense of it and approach Volume 2 with a different point of view: the shock value is gone, the strange world in which sexual extremity is what is normal is established, the look at what unfolds more unclouded. In a way, the first installment is the set up, the second the methodic execution. For Volume 2 is markedly different from Volume I: the narration is even more linear, more focused, less diverting, the narrative and visual style clearer, starker, one could say, a straightforward enumeration of various ways of pushing sexuality to the limit. The playfulness of Volume I is largely gone, the almost random and fast-paced series of images is still present but it rather condenses than opens the visual and narrative spaces. Whereas Volume I could be regarded as a quasi-philosophical discussion of a rather extreme experiment – the reduction of human experience to a single aspect which has been reduced to its mechanical core – Volume 2 is an uncompromising portrait of addiction.

In it, the two time levels – the narrated story and the act of telling it – come together, Charlotte Gainsbourg is now the protagonist of both. This takes away the somewhat fairy-tale like aspects of the first film and drags it down to where it really hurts. Gainsbourg’s never-relaxing, constantly taut and strained face is there at (almost) all times, a driven character without any escape. When that escape seems possible, in the final chapter, reality is quickly re-established. The nature of the framing narrative – Gainsbourg’s sex addict telling her story to Stellan Skarsgard’s professedly asexual bookworm Seligman changes, too. His constant digressions and comparisons taken from natural sciences, literature, philosophy and, of course, Freud, now take on a more humorous note. The more Joe’s story becomes a collection of activities on the dark side of sexuality (promiscuity, sadomasochism, exoticism with a decidedly racist touch), the more detached, the more ridiculous, these attempts of making sense become. After all, there is no sense to be found in the workings of addiction, there is no reasoning, no rational analysis, only a matter of not being able to do anything different.

Not for lack of trying: Whereas the earlier Joe lustily indulged in pushing sexual experience to a limit, the addiction now becomes a burden from which she repeatedly tries to escape. This, however, only results in failure and ultimately in strengthening addiction’s grip. No matter how much she still announces it as a lifestyle of her choice, she is now clearly on the side of the Western Church, the church of suffering, to use one of Seligman’s analogies. Von Trier also heavily relies on irony in a very smart way: by repeatedly creating ironic distance to his narrative subject sharpens our perspective, emphasizes the extremeness of what we see, the uncompromising nature of the affliction. the more we are made to laugh and see the ridiculous, the more haunting and stark is our experience of this kind of life, a life controlled by urges which, as von Trier doesn’t get tired of telling is, we all have, a fact brought home in the final, brilliantly ironic twist. There is no doubt, Lars von Trier has made artistically more ambitious, more structured, much more creative films than this long litany of sexual deviation, this hardly bearable catalogue of what we so gladly like to turn away from. Yet, in its uncompromising way, Nymphomaniac is a deeply impressive and highly disturbing portrayal of the outer edges of human nature, of addiction and an extreme desire to live life to the fullest. Not a kind picture of humanity but a compelling one indeed.

 

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