“If you’re going to dedicate four hours to a character – especially one with nymphomania – you should try to develop her enough so at the end of the day we can describe her with more than one word.”

I’ll be the first to call out a film split into to two parts (or in this case two volumes) when it didn’t need to be, but in the case of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, I think it would’ve been a rough sit for over four hours. For one, the second volume possesses a jarring tonal shift from the first volume, offering a darker, more agonizing look at our main character Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her self-described (and embraced) nymphomania. The first volume told the tale of a woman taking her desire and hunger for sex to new, unforeseen places. The second volume tells the tale of a desire and hunger for sex taking its subject to seedy and often dangerous places.

The film picks up right where volume one left off, as expected, where we’re still dealing with Joe recounting her sexual experiences aplenty to a random but wise stranger who finds her disheveled and beaten. This time around, we see the darker places Joe’s nymphomania has taken her, from having sex with people who speak an entirely different language to her craving being tied and lashed on the buttocks while being bent over the arm of a couch. Von Trier, in addition, makes sure we are attentive and present for every single lash and witness the mark it leaves.

Nymphomaniac Vol. II
Written & Directed by
Lars von Trier
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin
Release Date
20 March 2014
Steve’s Vol, II Grade: C. Overall Grade: B-

Even though, by definition, Nymphomaniac: Volume II is pretty explicit, it still feels tame in the long-run. Whether this is Von Trier not going that far or myself just see quite a bit of explicit film in my day, but for a film titled Nymphomaniac, the film isn’t nearly as graphic as it could be. Furthermore, volume one was concerned with setting up this character, introducing the thought of her being an incredibly sexual and very promiscuous human being, and consistently affirming how much she loves her vagina – which she calls that vile four-letter word beginning with a “c.” The fundamental issue with this second volume is that rather than beginning to develop the character and come to some kind of consensus about her outside of being a nymphomaniac, the film continues to build an elusiveness around her, further isolating us from a character we should start closing in on. Whenever we get one step closer to Joe, Von Trier pushes us three steps back, further obscuring any other traits or characteristics she possesses.

Let’s say that Von Trier is trying to illustrate that there is nothing else to this woman but cold, unfeeling sex. While that’s an interesting statement, that still doesn’t give us anything to latch on to, and for a film four hours in its entirety, that’s quite a long time to spend with such a vacuous character.

If you’re going to dedicate four hours to a character – especially one with nymphomania – you should try to develop her enough so at the end of the day we can describe her with more than one word.

Moreover, the film’s descent into darker territory is really hit and miss. Making us present through every bruising lash on the behind Joe receives, when other directors likely would’ve just shown the whip being raised, is a tense and truly authentic experience for the viewer. But for some of the other scenes that should evoke terror and fright get lost in their own hokiness. Consider the aforementioned scene where Joe seeks immediate gratification from two muscular black men who don’t speak a word of English. Rather than evoking some kind of suspense or build-up, the acting just doesn’t seem convincing enough to thrill us nor does the situation feel real or riveting enough to captivate us. Even the ending, which probably sounded very strong on paper, fizzles when it should pop, and the main idea it evokes gets lost in the sheer cheesiness of it all.

Though I’m constantly jumping back and forth, referring to both volumes as separate pieces, Nymphomaniac needs to be judged as a whole to a stern degree. Speaking in volumes, we have a solid chunk that is very nicely-crafted and satisfying in its grim, bleak portrait of the life of a nymphomaniac and is irritatingly vapid considering it should be coming to greater conclusions and giving us more characteristics for its lead character. As an entire project, it has its considerable dry patches but it always possesses the right tone, efficiently dehumanizes an act of real passion, and gets its audience to be comfortable being uncomfortable for the course of four hours. Each scenario becomes an unexpected event – kind of like a nymphomaniac’s life.

Review by Lead Film Critic Steve Pulaski