Danish director Lars von Trier’s antiraunchy sexual epic about one hyperpromiscuous woman takes on a darker shade in this second, final episode. Our antiheroine Joe (first Stacy Martin, later Charlotte Gainsbourg) now recounts to her one-man audience (Stellan Skarsgård) how, in middle age, she came to lose all sense of sexual pleasure, and find a sadder joy in masochism and violence. While much of the sex in the first film came across as a childish game, here it feels like self-imposed punishment as Joe submits to the whips of an S&M master (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell) and the dangerous thrills of intimacy with strangers, abandoning her sleeping child at night.
It’s here, too, that Von Trier starts to bring together loose strands and build upon his themes. If he had directed Les Misérables, it would look like this: time-hopping, expansive, episodic, crude, jolty, anarchic, self-deprecating but also unashamedly melodramatic by the time it reaches its conclusion. Joe is on a tragic trajectory and can’t escape her past: That past, we learn, is Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), her first lover and later her boss, partner, the father of her child and ultimately her nemesis. The pair meets and remeets with all the subtlety of opera. It’s this self-mockery that stops Nymphomaniac from being overly grim and reminds you of the puppet master behind it all. We’re never far from Von Trier, and both Skarsgård and Gainsbourg appear to offer different versions of the author himself.
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