Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review: "The Nymphomaniac - Part 2"

Director: Lars von Trier
Runtime: 118 minutes

By the time Part 2 of The Nymphomaniac comes to its bleakly humorous conclusion, one thing has become clear: despite the split release of Parts 1 and 2, this is truly one film. Von Trier doesn't bother with set up or introduction at the start of Part 2, which only further cements the idea that it should have, somehow, been released as a single 4 hour film. Taken as separate entities, however, it's clear that Part 2 is where The Nymphomaniac really comes together. With Charlotte Gainsbourg finally doing more than narrating, The Nymphomaniac gets a whole new life, and comes closest to achieving the sort of epic sexual saga that von Trier was striving towards.

This is, in large part, due to Part 2's descent into much darker territory. This was first hinted at in the final shot of Part 1, when young Joe (Stacy Martin) loses all sexual sensation. From this point on, we see Joe transform not only into her older self, but also into a woman caught up in the destructive side of her sexuality. In the confines of young adulthood, Joe was able to experiment without significant consequence. Now a grown woman, she's finally starting to feel the weight of expectations and social mores closing in on her. 

Joe initially wilts, but soon pulls herself together and starts using her sexuality to lash out against what she views as prudish bourgeois morality trying to shame her. Even so, her newfound sexual outlets aren't without their costs. At the start, Joe had a whole world open to exploration. Now she's finally run out of territory, and there's really something at stake for her. It's this significant shift that von Trier handles best in Part 2, and it's the reason why, even in isolation, Part 2 has the heft that Part 1 lacked.

In fairness, part of the credit is simply due to Gainsbourg appearing on screen in the flashbacks. Ms. Martin was quite effective in Part 1, but the disparity between narrator and protagonist proved something of an odd barrier to surmount. With past and present now inhabited by the same woman, The Nymphomaniac becomes a much richer work. Gainsbourg, relegated to passive narration in Part 1, finally has room to actually give life to Joe's journey beyond reciting it. Once again, Gainsbourg's gifts are an ideal match for von Trier's material, even if she never reaches the heights of her performance in Melancholia

The supporting cast, meanwhile, remains rather one dimensional, despite the increased number of recognizable faces. Joe leads a lonely life, and the film reflects this by not really delving into the backgrounds of other characters. The lone exception is P (Mia Goth), who Joe unwillingly takes on as a protege after getting involved with a seedy businessman (Willem Dafoe). Though P comes into play in, as Joe describes it, a remarkable coincidence, it nonetheless helps The Nymphomaniac come full circle in a deeply unsettling way. Even when doing her best to care for another life, Joe is still pitted against P in surprising ways. Their relationship is a microcosm of how parts of society treat women, never allowing them to be more than just friends. There must always be competition either in service of men or for the pleasure of men. 

With its noticeable stakes and sense of danger, Part 2 serves as a fitting conclusion to von Trier's would-be opus. Though at times unwieldy in its dialogue, (though less so than in Part 1), Part 2 is where Joe becomes more than someone to follow; she becomes someone to be invested in. After so much build up, Part 2 is where The Nymphomaniac feels more in tune with its characters than with its concepts and ideas. Taken as a whole, The Nymphomaniac is certainly a compelling portrait of a woman's sexual journey, but only it Part 2 does that journey fully come to life. 

Grade: B+

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