Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Cinematographer: Manuel Alberto Claro
Producer: Marie Cecilie Gade and Louise Vesth
by Jon Cvack
I started Volume 2 (The Director’s Cut) right after finishing Volume 1, excited to see how else it could possibly evolve for the next three hours of story. As mentioned, I’ve been disappointed and incredibly disturbed by Von Trier’s other recent work; which seemed much more focused on using “artistic cinema” to shock viewers with sensational images. I had a suspicion that Volume 2 would return to this format and sure enough, it provided some of the most disturbing images I’d ever seen in cinema.
The story opens up on yet another anecdote, in which Joe looks over to a painting of the Mother Mary and the two discuss the old and new testaments, relegating their philosophy to the former being about the “Church of Suffering” and the latter a “Church of Happiness”. Joe expresses her struggle between guilt and satisfaction and the idea is explored throughout the rest of the film.
Unable to feel any sensation in her vagina, she and Jerôme nevertheless have a child. Regardless of her condition, her sexual appetite is just as acute. Unable to satisfy her, Jerôme allows Joe to start seeing other men again and Jerôme grows deeply jealous.
Soon Joe grows interested in a mfm threesome, preferring two African men who she assumes are well endowed, using a random translator to lure them back to her hotel where the two men argue about who’s going to take which hole first; soon resolving it for a moment where we get to see actual double penetration in what I assume was reserved for the director’s cut. The situation ends within seconds as the argument continues and the men leave, annoyed.
Joe exploration and search for orgasm evolves to her meeting up with the film’s most interesting character, sadist K (Jamie Bell), who operates out of a mysterious warehouse in the middle of nowhere. His conditions are that there are no safety words and there’s no sex. Jamie Bell somehow provides charisma to the character; in which he politely asks Joe to remove her clothes and bend over the side of the couch where he straps her down, fingering her vagina to check how aroused she is. It takes a few visits and the dissolution of her marriage before he finally flogs her on the ass, in which Von Trier shows the skin break and K checks to see the results. What induces severe pain soon evolves to a deep sensual pleasure as Joe finally achieves orgasm. As if that wasn’t enough, K culminates their relationship by giving her the “Silent Duck” which is when he lays his fingers around his thumb and sticks his hand up her anus and von Trier shows it all.
Years later, Joe is now played by Charlotte Gainsbourg who’s attempting to maintain a job, working as a secretary is some nondescript office job. However, when her boss learns of Joe’s promiscuity, and that it’s begun to expand to her co-worker’s husbands, she demands that Joe go into therapy or be terminated. In group therapy, she admits to her addiction and attempts to end it, taping off everything in her apartment which she could rub against including chairs, coffee tables, dresser knobs, and faucets. The film doesn’t provide some grand withdrawal sequence - as I’m sure Von Trier knew it’d be tough to top either Trainspotting (1996) or Requiem for a Dream (2000) - and instead provides a more enlightening moment. Back at group therapy, as she explains her progress, she drops her prepared speech in order to declare she’s going back to sex, as given the lack of personal harm it causes her compared to other drugs, she wants to be free and welcome the addiction.
It was here I was left thinking of the ideas behind Belle de Jour (1967), and its portrayal of a woman who takes pleasure in masochism, bondage, and dominance; regarded as one of the most important feminist texts in the history of cinema. Until Nymphomaniac, I realized I had never seen another text like it; showing a woman proud of her identity rather than limiting her arc to a more traditional recovery. While her promiscuity destroyed lives, it was also based upon men’s inherent weakness when propositioned with such a rare offer. I was left wondering if Joe’s addiction to sex wasn’t just based in pleasure (as it didn’t always exist), but rather because it allowed her to control and dominate men; perhaps in the way Joe’s mother controlled her father without a single word (with strong hints that it was sex alone that caused him to stay in the relationship).
The consequences culminate when Joe gets pregnant and so begins one of the film’s weakest and most disturbing scenes which I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. She demands her doctor abort the fetus, but is so frantic and enraged that he recommends she goes to a counselor before committing where she undergoes a demeaning questionnaire about her personal life. The issue here is that Joe could have so easily played along with the counselor and received the safety of a professional abortion, but instead erupts and elects to do the procedure herself with a series of large needles and a clothing hanger. In the Antichrist (2009) I found myself looking away during the circumcision; finding little satisfaction in the overall story. In this case, I felt a strange obligation to watch how horrendous these procedures are; as I really think you could show this scene to any pro-life individual to demonstrate how horrifying the alternative is.
We watch as she sterilizes the needles which get progressively larger, then using a precision caliper in order to grab the fetus at the precise distance. She lays down on her floor, takes the first needle, and then Von Trier cuts into a close up of her vagina where she inserts each and every device, including the coat hanger where, with the use of an animated graphic, we see the way it hooks on the fetus, which she removes and pops out of her. It’s truly the most disturbing scene I’ve ever witnessed in the history of cinema.
At first I was turned off, believing that Von Trier included it simply to engage with the sensationalism that so many of his other films contain. And then I began considering that Joe was smart enough to know her own irrationality during the counseling session, and that the abortion served as the ultimate punishment she wished to inflict on herself; to destroy the creature that perhaps could have changed her for the better whilst experiencing the maximum amount of pain.
Seligman and Joe debate the issue. For the first time, Seligman is disgusted and so begins one of their first disagreements. Joe somehow says it’s hypocritical for Seligman to express disgust for the procedure when he supports a women’s right to choose. Initially, you might criticize the logic, but then again, I do think it’s an important experience to witness the scene in order to understand the significance of a woman’s right to her body and the consequences of taking that away; but then again he did listen to the whole story and I did watch the act and remained disgusted, both in what I saw and what Joe opted to do.
The act leads Joe into a life of crime, using her sex in order to retrieve outstanding loans from crime boss “L” (Willem Dafoe). In one of the more interesting scenes, accompanied by two guards, she refuses to have them beat the man and instead discovers his proclivities; finding out he’s a pedophile and using the information to get back the payment. Soon L requests that Joe find an apprentice, indicating that her older age will prove increasingly less effective. She soon meets the fifteen-year-old “P” (Mia Goth) who she falls madly in love - or more so lust - possibly seeing herself and not just molesting the child but essentially molesting herself.
The pair end up at Jerôme’s, where Joe refuses to go in, giving P her big shot. The two then fall in love with each other. When the two are outside Jerôme’s house, Joe hides in an alley with a gun P had purchased, going up to Jerôme and firing, but the gun fails to go off. Jerôme then beats her and urinates on her broken body and Seligman finds her shortly after. The trope of a safety-caught gun is easy enough for both Joe and Seligman to acknowledge; with Seligman thinking it was too common a part of movie culture for Joe to ignore, and that possibly she wanted Jerôme to beat her as the final punishment for what she considered an immoral life.
While I remain on the fence about a few of the key moments from the film, it was the cynical conclusion that left me most upset. When the sun finally rises, Seligman and Joe say goodnight. Joe falls asleep and Seligman enters the room, pulls down the blanket, and strokes himself. She wakes up and he defends that action with the fact she’s been with thousands of men. She then takes the gun, and in a black screen, fires and kills Seligman. Again, I was left wondering if this was the official final punishment; either for the jail which awaits her or to kill the one friend she had made; as ultimately, given that she too had raped and hurt men, it seems like, right or wrong, she of all people should have understood and empathized with his desire for sex. It felt like far too harsh an ending and completely unredemptive. Yet perhaps that’s the point; that so far as von Trier sees it, a common side of addiction is complete self-destruction. And just as a nymphomaniac or queer sex hasn’t been properly explored, neither have the tragic conclusions of any addiction; at least in cinema.
BELOW: Unexpected redemption
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