Review–Nymphomaniac: Volume II

Leaving us on the cusp of coming…to any real closure with our young protagonist Joe (Stacy Martin), von Trier throws quite the curve ball with his character and the overall story, allowing the narrative to take an unexpected turn. After five chapters in the life of Joe’s deranged and numb life, we continue into her sexual escapades as she becomes a woman, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Nymphomaniac: Volume II picks up exactly where Volume I left off, and doesn’t leave any sex or shock behind. Instead, Volume II is the overly stimulated, ultra aroused, and intellectually charged sexual explicit drama that Volume I never was.

Although the film was never meant to be split into two parts, and von Trier intended the film to be his original five and a half hour long cut, Volume II is the complex and deep answer to a conventionally linear sexually charged character piece that was Volume I. Think of Nymphomaniac in the same way as you would Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is soaked with violence and bloodshed, making great use of the magic of movie spectacle and serving as a valiant homage to so many of the films Tarantino grew up with and loved.Kill Bill: Vol. 2, a film that infuses so many of the complex philosophies Tarantino has cherished, as well as surely inducting many of his own radical and absurd justifications without much violence, spectacle or gore, the film becomes a philosophical, witty and complex story with an understanding of his protagonist’s psyche and the reason behind her vengeance. Now picture Nymphomaniac: Volume II in the same way as Kill Bill: Vol. 2, but instead of violence, substitute it for graphic nudity and sexual acts (although it is not nearly as subtracted as the violence in Vol.2 of Kill Bill). So basically, the second film in von Trier’s carnal opus is a long-winded, understanding of Joe’s addiction and the ways in which she tries to subdue it, or if anything, control it.

Volume II descends to the deep and dark corners of a woman who no longer finds simple penetrative intercourse pleasurable. When sex is not enough, what happens? If Joe is any indication of real world nymphomaniacs and the paths they follow in order to find pleasure, von Trier never prepares us for the unexpected directions Joe goes, desperately to find pleasure, at any cost.


There is no doubting that Joe finds erotic pleasure in the most taboo places and scenarios. She purposely pulls the wires from her car to attract a large crowd of men, who she presumably goes back to have sex with as the camera pans out. She finds strangers on the street, specifically two black men, who so happen to be brothers, to penetrate her at the same time. The scene, which is a big production still that was used towards the marketing of the film, is less graphic and erotic than what you would imagine, and instead more hysterical as it unfolds, especially with the quarrels of the two men. In Joe’s last attempt to find pleasure with a ‘cunt’ that has failed her, Joe finds a man by the name of K (Jamie Bell), an expert in the brutal art of bondage/BDSM whom she finds stimulating through violence and pain. Her relationship is one that she sacrifices the most for as she becomes a woman and a business professional, compromising her health, the little family Joe has, and of course, the limits of her addiction. Volume II of the saga explores the ways in which people find meaning in their addictions without penetration, although they are overall, mostly naturally and habitually inclined to express themselves through intercourse.

If you know anything about Lars von Trier, you would know that he is a man with many phobias. An intense fear of flying and various bouts of serious depression, the director is a man who implements so many of his phobias onto his characters, especially Nymphomaniac. Ironically enough, since his declaration to never be part of interviews or press conferences again since his last conference at Cannes accused him of loving Hitler and being a Satanist, Volume II has a lot of bottled up feelings the director has been dying to express–in controversial fashion.

Throughout Joe’s narration of her life to Seligman (Skarsgård), he describes her actions to those of a man’s behaviour of sex. For the most part, Joe is always powerless to her men, especially in the scenes with K (Bell) who appropriately gives her the alias Fido, a name predominantly used for a dog. Joe is submissive and obedient to anything K says, including tying her to couches, chairs or asked to stand still, unflinching, regardless of the painful outcome. Although Joe seems to give all the power to her sexual partners, there is no denying the control she has over them, mentally persuading them to adhere to her requests.


Joe is a human being who seems to be failing in so many aspect of her personal, sexual, and professional life. After a meeting with her boss, who acknowledges Joe’s addiction, she seeks rehabilitation by attending group meetings. In a very pronounced few scenes, we see Joe tearing down the life she knew for a life absent of any sexual pleasures or triggers that will ignite her libido. Tearing down everything from her walls, removing mirrors and placing gloves on her hands to disable her from touching herself or filling any of her holes, Joe finds the rehabilitation working, until she reunites for another meeting. Facing herself in a mirror in the centre of the group, Joe looks at a vision of her younger self, sitting on a chair. She gazes into the eyes of her younger self, and realizes, at that moment who she is–and that will never change. No matter how many digressions Seligman may make throughout Joe’s story, comparisons to the Eastern and Western Church and artistic icons, Joe accepts who she is and embraces her tragic life and dismal future.

As the film draws to an unexpected conclusion, it seems that von Trier’s use of sex and graphic nudity is not front and centre of Nymphomaniac, although many may confuse it for a pornographic piece of character art. The film makes clear both Joe’s and von Trier’s overall commentary, “society is as cowardly as the people in it”. Sex may be the driving force of Joe’s physical intentions, but the sex surely does not drive Nymphomaniac. 

Eventually, Joe accepts that she is unable to lead a ‘normal’ life and finds a profession in the debt collection industry, under the tutelage of L (Willem Dafoe, another Antichrist alum). Other than the domestic violence that Joe subjects herself to from K, Nymphomaniac never becomes a violent epic. Instead of violence or showing brutal killings or scenes of torture, von Trier refrains from showing intense scenes of bloodshed and substitutes them with sexual profanity. In one of the best scenes and dialogues between characters, Joe is working on a Debtor Gentleman (Jean-Marc Barr) who she breaks using her sexually disturbing life experiences and creating stories used to mentally break her subjects. It is in this scene that perhaps von Trier will get the majority of backlash, as von Trier sympathizes with the ‘nature’ of a man’s desire for pedophilia. Finding similar feelings of loneliness and inability to truly express his desire as Joe does, Joe consoles the man back to health. From this point on, Joe’s actions as collector have been nothing less than unscrupulous, as requested by her employer, but as that man cries at the realization of his desires, a man deemed unforgivable by society and the parameters of basic morals and ethics, Joe embraces him, as does the film, given him a home and a place to be safe within the frames of Nymphomaniac. 


Poetic and beautiful, Nymphomaniac begins in the alleyway of Seligman’s home, snowy, almost beautiful, until the subsonic sounds of the Neue Deutsche Härte band Rammstein shockingly fills the speakers with a brash, industrial booming sound. Alternately, von Trier’s Nymphomaniac ends in darkness, alone, to the pleasant melody of Gainsbourg’s voice in song.

The final chapter in the film is appropriately titled “The Gun”, the most phallic image conceivable by man. Throughout her journey, all of the violent desires she has towards others are thwarted by what Seligman suggests is an internal moral force; Joe substitutes a change in her lifestyle for another anathema lifestyle. In the first film, Joe describes herself as a ‘bad human being’, but the final decision is left up to the audience.

Lars von Trier describes his film-making style as a feeling similar to the feeling you would have when finding a rock in your shoe–uncomfortable yet hard to shake. Nymphomaniac will surely takes its place among a series of films who will be remembered for its bravery and lasting awakening to remind filmmakers everywhere that all boundaries and limits may be pushed in the medium of cinema. There is no denying von Trier’s natural cynicism of life. He is notorious for stating that, “everything is going to hell, but we should smile all the way”. 

Daring and at times challenging, Nymphomaniac is a film that asks us confront ourselves and find the soul of an individual who believes she doesn’t have one. Even when Joe finds her soul tree, she faces a tree that is crooked, bare, and deformed, much like the experiences in Joe’s life. Nymphomaniac: Volume II will surely live, not as von Trier’s weaker digressions of his take on life, but as a misunderstood cinematic masterpiece. Volume II may not be exactly how you imagined it from the build up of the first Volume, but not to worry. “Most people don’t scream until I hit them”. Nymphomaniac: Volume II will surely be a movie that will have you screaming, ranting, and raving about for many days after you see it, and von Trier wouldn’t want it any other way.

Night Film Reviews: 9 Out of 10 Stars.

Content with the sexually charge, shock-til-you-drop drama von Trier has delivered? Or are you waiting for the unedited director’s cut of the film poised to come out next year? Will you be seeing this movie, and if you already have, what did you think? Masterpiece or piece of unwanted crap? Leave whatever thoughts, comments and opinions below. 


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