No doubt anticipating my review of his Nymphomania Vol. 1, Lars von Trier directly acknowledges his references to Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life — The Cantebury Tales, The Decameron, and The Arabian Nights — in the beginning of the far more tenebrous, shakier Vol. 2. The academic Seligman (Stellan Skårsgard) also begins quoting Freud, referencing his position as therapist/confessor to the battered Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in his bed with a cup of tea that she has nursed for a couple of hours now, but which we will find out when she flings it against the wall is still mostly full. Having nodded to these tropes and devices, the director throws a few more into the mix, namely religion and the notion that pain and self-abnegation are conduits to ecstatic enlightenment.

But first, von Trier takes a moment to address his public-persona problems, which he has battled since being declared persona non grata at the Cannes Film Festival, following a delirious rant at a press conference about how people like him are all Nazis. Those of us who know von Trier and his work understood his line of thinking. In that respect, it wasn’t intended to offend, just provoke; like him or not, von Trier is a true artist, a great one, and therefore by nature subversive. But I believe he didn’t give enough time to this particular, very delicate line of thinking — he just threw himself impressionistically into a raging river whose current overwhelmed him — so it came out malformed, an abortion. Watching Kirsten Dunst literally distance herself by backing away from von Trier at the panelists’ table speaks volumes for how the world understood the director’s words in those disastrous, career-changing minutes.

Having split himself in two, into Joe and Seligman, von Trier conducts a brief dialectic debate with himself about racist remarks, with the innately subversive Joe advocating “calling a spade a spade” immediately after she’s just told a story about having a threesome with two African brothers (as in related to each other, not the euphemism for ‘black man’); the rational, timid Seligman defends the rightness of political correctness as being a tool democratic societies use to defend minorities. Joe snaps back and shred democracy in general — most people who are eligible to vote are too stupid to uphold it.

Charlotte Gainsbourg Stellan Skårsgard in Nymphomaniac

Intellectually, I understand von Trier’s position about democracy; I’ve suggested before that people should be required to pass a basic civic-knowledge test before they be allowed to vote, much like a driver’s license. It could be argued that voting the wrong person into power, particularly in the U.S., can be far more catastrophic than putting a person who doesn’t know how to drive behind the wheel of a car. However, that isn’t how democracy, particularly the American variety, tends to work in practice; this country is a brilliantly designed, self-correcting system that may not see change for the better or the righteous in the short term, but almost invariably does in the long. I would say that education is the best and most obvious defense against the stupid voting for the even stupider, but that would be disingenuous; I know plenty of well-educated people who vote stupidly.

To his credit, von Trier speaks his mind about racism and political correctness via Joe, while Seligman, who is the conscience of the audience, rebuts. The director leaves it hanging there for further debate outside the theater. But he has raised the issue and it is now an element of the narrative, an element that will be addressed later in the film; this isn’t just von Trier getting back at his Cannes detractors. How middle-class society judges Joe and her behavior is now at the forefront in Vol. 2. Society is an unwelcome, ugly mirror that is thrust in front of her; in case you don’t get it, von Trier puts a pathetic mirror on Seligman’s wall that Joe looks into now and then.

While the first half of Nymphomaniac examined the meaning behind pleasure and inter-personal emotions, the second thrusts us into the sinful, the dark, into danger and violence. Gainsbourg has this portion almost entirely to herself; the sugary, ethereal Stacy Martin, who plays Joe until she gives birth, and who dominates the first half, barely appears in this segment. It’s a more jarring transition than I expected; I not only enjoyed the crosscutting juxtaposition between Gainsbourg and Martin in the first half, I was inspired enough by it to decide once and for all that I am going to use two sets of cast in my next film, which also covers a cross-generational timeline. As Gainsbourg takes over playing Joe in flashbacks as well as in the ‘present moment’ propped up in Seligman’s bed, all I could think of was how the character must have taken up smoking five packs of cigarettes a day in the space of three years in order to shatter her voice from Martin’s crystal fairy to Gainsbourg’s industrial grinder.

Vol. 2 is decidedly less pleasant than the first part, deliberately so. Having dismissed the references to Pasolini, Freud and Catholicism as if they were obvious — and a good storyteller should highlight his references and then toss them aside — von Trier now begins to point to his own work, specifically Antichrist, which also starred Gainsbourg, and Breaking the Waves. As Joe becomes more feral, unhinged and Kali-esque, the men become weaker, ingénue victims of her destructive female energy.

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There have been cries of sexism about the film overall. “Nymphomaniac isn’t shocking. It’s a conventional, sexist view of female sexuality,” declared the title of Eric Sasson’s review in The New Republic. That von Trier addresses this issue head-on in the final third of Vol. 2 seems to make no difference to Sasson; he feels obliged to defend the democratic right to political correctness above radically honest dialectic. And calling von Trier ‘conventional’ is in itself a deliberate attempt to be shocking; however, it’s just plain silly and wrong.

First of all, I don’t think Nymphomaniac is intended to shock as much as it is to provoke, and I’m not splitting hairs here. I am often provocative in my work and my general way of being, deliberately so — being truthful to who I am and the world at large is comforting — but I am not deliberately shocking. Provocation questions your way of thinking, your mores, your performativity of behaviors handed to you by others. Shock is aggressive; more often than not I find it dull, irritating, I want to switch it off.

The accusation of sexism in this instance is subjective. If Sasson chooses to view it that way, then that is his right, but I see the film as quite the opposite. There are objectively and subjectively sexist statements or acts just as there are racist statements or acts. For instance, commenting on an African-American’s ability to dance or play sports, or his large penis size, can be interpreted one way or the other; personally, I would be flattered if I were a black man, just as I am flattered that gay men are thought to have good taste and to be better looking than straight men, even though gay men know this is untrue (to wit, that tacky rainbow flag). Calling the same African-American a ‘nigger’ and denying him equal rights is objectively racist.

To say that Nymphomaniac is sexist towards all female sexuality in general is patently ridiculous, and ignores Joe’s denunciation of sex addicts and those sheeple who engage in such twelve-stepping generalities when she speaks at the group-therapy session her bourgeois, conformist employer forces her to attend. In that quick speech, Joe proclaims herself an individual like no other. She is a nymphomaniac and she loves herself for it, or she is trying to. So she goes out and does the only sensible thing: Finds more suitable employment that integrates her true nature. If anything, Mr. Sasson, that entire sequence is one of the most powerful feminist manifestos ever recorded on film.

Jamie Bell as K, the sadist ‘dom,’ is probably the most interesting bit of casting in the entire second part — he’s another of von Trier’s cheeky juxtapositions. The director knows you’re going to have a hard time envisioning Billy Elliot as ruthlessly violent; the archetypal dom is diabolical, and Bell has been hitherto typecast as an angel. But both the director and performer convince you of K’s truthfulness — he quickly becomes one of the more intriguing and believable of Joe’s relationships.

Jamie Bell in Nymphomaniac

As I noted in my first review, von Trier’s narrative structure, his adherence to strict rules of drama, is so classicist it’s modernist. This applies to the ending, which quite a few have found understandably jarring, dissatisfying. Per my article a few weeks ago entitled ‘Endings Are So Difficult,’ it would appear that von Trier runs out of steam at the end, is at something of a loss for ideas, and sputters out.

However the ending affects you emotionally and intellectually, objectively speaking the director has wrapped up this entire complex opus is as correct a fashion as possible. He begins the sequence with Joe observing that the sun has come up, something Scheherazade does after every chapter in the One Thousand and One Nights — the queen has been spared to live another day to continue her story, as will Joe, and the sun is the testament to the fact she is still alive. I won’t spoil things for people who haven’t seen the film, but von Trier deploys a traditional dramatic principle to conclude two elements that he has already embedded in the narrative, just as he has wrapped up similar elements all along. This is what I mean by classicist; I defy you to find fault in Nymphomaniac’s composition. (For those who have seen the film who don’t get what I’m referring to, this link might be helpful.)

Again per my review of the first half, as a piece of cinema Nymphomaniac is a masterpiece. You might like or dislike it, but your opinion doesn’t take away from what it is. There are many classical works of art I don’t much like on many levels — the Mona Lisa is the most glaring example — but they remain masterpieces of a kind I should be so lucky to create myself.

And that’s the crux of it: Nymphomaniac is the most important Lars von Trier piece in terms of breaking out some of my own work and making it acceptable to audiences and financiers, and for that I am appreciative. He’s also forcing me to be more honest. To that end, I am writing an article about my recent bondage-camp weekend under the tutelage of young man far more angelic than Jamie Bell. I wouldn’t have dared to write about something so personal and, from a middle-class point of view, outrageous before seeing this film.

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