Danish director Lars Von Trier’s anti-raunchy sexual epic about one hyper-promiscuous woman assumes a darker shade in this second, final episode. Our anti-heroine 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, threat 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 (Jamie Bell) and the dangerous thrills of sex with strangers, abandoning her sleeping child at night.
It’s now, too, that Von Trier starts to bring together loose strands and build theme upon theme. If he directed ‘Les Misérables’, it would look like this: time-hopping, expansive, episodic, crude, jolty, anarchic, self-depreciating 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 Jérome (Shia LaBeouf), her first lover and later her boss, partner, father of her child and ultimately her nemesis. The pair meet and re-meet with all the subtlety of dodgy opera. Von Trier even makes a joke of this by having Gainsbourg admit in her confession-narration to Skarsgård that coincidences in her tale are rife. It’s this self-mockery that stops ‘Nymphomaniac’ being overly grim and reminds you of the puppetmaster behind it all. We’re never far from Von Trier, and both Skarsgård and Gainsbourg appear to offer different versions of the author himself.
Von Trier’s pooling of an international cast (Bell, LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jean-Marc Barr and others), all speaking English in continental European settings, has become a filmmaking style all of its own. You either run with it or laugh. Roughly, this is supposed to be England (only the currency gives it away; LaBeouf’s wonky accent is presumably the decoy) and equally roughly, between Part One and Part Two, we move from the 1970s to now. But rough is the word: you don’t come to a Von Trier film for social realism and a cast-iron sense of time and place. You come for raw honesty; provocation; contradictions; flights of fancy. You also come for brave, committed turns from actresses. And both newcomer Martin and old-hand Gainsbourg anchor these two films with performances you can’t take your eyes off; they’re the calm eyes of Von Trier’s storm.
Is there any sign here of a chastened Von Trier after the ‘I’m a Nazi’ scandal that engulfed him at Cannes in 2011? You only have to hear Skarsgård’s character musing on how non-active paedophiles ‘deserve a medal’ or see Gainsbourg sandwiched between two African immigrants with hard-ons to know the answer. He might not have been in control of the edit of this version of his film (the uncut version will emerge later), but the frank, unflinching and playful two-part ‘Nymphomaniac’ couldn’t have been made by anyone else.
Read the review of Nymphomaniac: Part One