To judge the second part of Lars von Trier’s magnum opus separately from its preceding first half is ill-advised, since Nymphomaniac – for all its complexities, sheer ballsiness and sprawling length – can only really be digested as a whole, which is an audacious, fearless work of multifarious art that gloriously rebuffs conventional cinematic narrative in the same way its central protagonist Joe refuses to conform to society’s preconceived notions of female sexuality. But since von Trier’s initially conceived five-and-a-half hour tragicomic sex odyssey has been botched down to four and subsequently cleaved into two halves so all the butts in the world won’t numb to oblivion in one sitting (especially in today’s attention-deficit mass audience) – let’s narrow the focus for the time being to Vol. II, mainly to appease the formalities of rudimentary theatrical distribution.
I’ve seen Vol. I twice now, first in Berlin and second during last night’s masterfully orchestrated cinema exhibition genius courtesy of UK’s Artificial Eye. Where the first half luxuriated in the parallels between Joe’s case of insatiable lust and Seligman’s intellectual alleviations to often black humour, Vol. II takes the story further into the abyss of the human soul, where the pursuit of pleasure and ecstasy give way to pain, violence, self-degradation and the profound sadness of being an outcast. Joe’s long, dark night of constructing an intensely personal, soul-baring, moral bildungsroman turns even more inward, as she becomes more anguished and radical while making Seligman more uncomfortable and skeptical in a tale that descends to the depths of a nymphomaniac’s inconsolable loneliness and society’s stark hypocrisy and blatant moral judgements.
Von Trier’s parallelisms take central stage as ever, even going so far as boldy drawing comparisons of Joe to Roman Empire’s Messalina and the Great Whore of Babylon – two figures in history and literature deemed as icons of ‘evil’ to many and early iconoclastic feminists to some. Rehabilitating her sexuality from loss of feeling, she resorts to pain, danger and eventually nihilism, allowing the scenes of sadomasochism and double-penetration to make perfect psychological sense in her state-of-mind. Religion (read: cultural and sexual repression) plays a pivotal role in Joe and Seligman’s arguments here, with the Western Church’s concept of guilt and suffering reflective in Joe’s passive submission to efficient sadist K (Jamie Bell pulling an ominously convincing turn as an arse-whipper). Ecstasy in martyrdom has been the stuff religious tomes preach all the way down from the Christian bible, and that’s been brutally and viscerally summed up in forty whips on Charlotte Gainbourg (a performances that’s beyond bruising and beyond words) and her brutalised bum cheeks as she brings herself to epiphanic orgasm.
You read that last sentence again and it sounds like a provocation. But it’s not. It’s so much more than that. Von Trier sets up Joe as a feeble, humiliated, afflicted female attending ‘sex addict’ meetings and transforms her into a singular voice of self-empowerment – using her sexuality and experience to extract capital debts from the many men she’s employed to encounter. Make no mistake, von Trier extends the same thematic obsessions in his characters in previous films such as Bess in Breaking the Waves and Grace in Dogville, but Nymphomaniac‘s Joe is hitherto the director’s most compelling and fascinating interpretation of a femme fatale. A self-aware woman with self-destructive needs, yes, but also one that crusades against the expectations built around her. And behind the figure of Joe is Lars himself sending what is so far his most powerful ‘fuck you’ to social conformity and conventional, dreary filmmaking.
So it all rounds up to the brazen artistic spunk of Lars von Trier, always unafraid to channel his most daring thoughts to his films and Nymphomaniac becomes his recent vessel to his rebellious attitude. Vol. II contains wild, abundant ideas about sexuality, humanity and the medium of storytelling itself that would render a hundred other directors’ output combined pale in comparison. May it be bravely suggesting empathy to the impulse of paedophilia or furiously swiping at society’s slut-shaming at large, this man takes umbrage at our culture’s cowardly branding and scapegoating of those who refuses to conform to what is perceived as ‘normal’. Nymphomaniac, as a work of art, asks us to grow a pair of balls, confront issues that are deemed as taboos – and continually prod, provoke, incite, if that’s what it takes to open people’s minds. There is rarely any other director such as von Trier working today, and creating this film alone sets him apart in the industry of filmmaking, just like Joe’s chosen tree – perched right at the top of an isolated place, weatherbeaten and alone, yet still standing strong and ready to take on any shit-storm.