When we last left Joe, the sexually adventurous woman played by Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac: Volume I," she remained neither satisfied nor even physically stimulated. The movie itself was frustrating, too, a half-solved puzzle of inconsistent characters and enigmatic themes. Will "Nymphomaniac: Volume II" provide an epiphany for Joe, and for us?
Initially, "Volume II" seems to be heading toward coherence. Previously, Joe sought pleasure in a number of bodies, adding up multiple partners (and dividing marriages). Now, she believes pleasure can be found through pain. She seeks the help of K (an intense Jamie Bell), who provides a service of sorts beating the tar out of women. With ropes, whips and fists, K becomes the man who jolts Joe to something like life.
It was inevitable that "Nymphomaniac," a movie dedicated to exploring perverse sexuality, would find its way toward violence. Along with K, there is L, an underworld debt collector played by Willem Dafoe, who (rather improbably) hires Joe to help coerce deadbeats into paying. Joe also takes a young lover, P (Mia Goth), who becomes her surprisingly violent helpmate. In "Volume II," a gun finally appears on-screen.
But "Volume II" is no more fulfilling than "Volume I." The random associations from the first film -- fly fishing, the Fibonacci sequence -- are either dropped entirely or revisited in ways that provide no further clarification. The wildly erratic character of Jerome -- abusive dullard, tender lover, devoted family man, brutal sociopath -- is a central mystery further obfuscated by a sudden change of actor: He's played by Shia LaBeouf until Michael Pas takes over in one of the film's crucial scenes.
"Nymphomaniac" offers, in total, more than four hours of joyless sex and inexplicably awful behavior, but in the end it feels like a grab bag of notions rather than a narrative crafted around a cogent point. Joe's friendly interlocutor, a bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), provides lip service to gender issues, but that seems a hoary concept for a movie that works so hard to shock its viewers. Philosophically, at least, "Nymphomaniac" ends with something less than a bang.
PLOT One woman's sexual adventures take a violent turn. Unrated
CAST Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Jamie Bell
BOTTOM LINE Full of shocks and jolts, but the movie's philosophy is even uglier than the graphic, joyless sex. Intriguing, but not illuminating.