Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume II is in no way a stand-alone work; it’s the second half of a four-hour story. Volume II would be close to incomprehensible without Volume I, but seen together the main character’s decisions and motivations will make sense. Unfortunately, her final action underscores the pointless nihilism and misanthropy at the dead heart of every one of Von Trier’s provocations.
The movie picks up right after the end of Volume I: The still recuperating Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) continues to share her life story with the gentle Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who found her unconscious in an alley near his apartment at the beginning of the previous film. Joe is a nymphomaniac, and she reveals how terrible of a mother she was, how she became a willing masochist in order to feel anything after she goes sexually numb, and how her rejection of therapy led to a life of crime that culminated in her being left beaten and bloodied when Seligman rescued her.
As these tales unfold, Seligman listens without judgment and intellectualizes her choices. That was the structure of Volume I as well, but this time around, there is a sense of humanity missing from the film. That makes sense since the first part of the story was about Joe coming to accept and control her urges as best as she could, whereas the much darker second half is devoted to how her compulsions have torn her apart.
Stacy Martin, the actress who plays Joe as a teenager and twentysomething, appears only briefly after dominating the first half of the movie, and she is sorely missed. She gave young Joe a blank openness that hinted at both her wonder and fear about what she was discovering about herself. Gainsbourg’s coldness underscores the film’s darker turns, but it also goes right to the center of why Von Trier remains a soulless director.
Willie Nelson famously sang that “you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say,” and the same holds true for cinema. Lars Von Trier has nothing to say. He’s an unquestionably skilled director and editor. His images can be lush—like when Joe goes for walks with her father—or brutal—like Joe’s encounters with a deadeyed sadist—and both have an undeniable pull. He’s formally gifted, but his films have no heart or soul. As with his previous work, Melancholia, Von Trier tries to fool viewers into thinking he’s going to make a movie about real people who experience emotional extremes, only to punish his audience for believing for a second that there could be anything good in the world.
He fails here because his tone and approach are overly familiar. He can’t provoke us anymore because it’s obvious he thinks you’re stupid if you invest in his lead characters. From Dancer in the Dark on, he’s become a repetitive, mean-spirited bore. Von Trier’s films are now nothing more than exercises in cynical misanthropy, and that hatred is so total that he denies letting you see this picture’s ending. The final scene of Nymphomaniac, the one that hammers you if you cared at all about Joe, plays out in complete blackness, as if the director is finally admitting once and for all the emptiness of his work.