Review: ‘Nymphomaniac: Volume II’ is too much, but not enough

Charlotte Gainsbourg in the movie "Nymphomaniac: Volume II," a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Charlotte Gainsbourg in the movie “Nymphomaniac: Volume II,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
(Christian Geisnaes / Magnolia Pictures)

Picking up the story from the first film with little more than a title card — no “previously on” recap here — Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier jumps right back into it with “Nymphomaniac: Volume II” as Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) continues to recount her life as a sex addict to the man (Stellan Skarsgård) who found her slumped in the street and took her in.

In “Volume II,” Von Trier reveals that his “Nymphomaniac” project could also be called “The Hunger Games” for the way in which it explores the boundaries of need and want and the play between desire and demand. When Joe asks more than once to be filled, both as a command and a wish, she is talking directly about orifices but more truthfully about her heart and her soul, the empty spaces she is trying to make complete.

The scenes between Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell as an anonymous man offering domination services are perhaps the ones where the entire “Nymphomaniac” project gels most completely, as the tension and sexual charge of their sessions, and the explicit manner in which they are depicted, create a head-spinning mix of emotions, power dynamics and raw physicality.

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Joe’s further misadventures include a scene in which she entreats two African men through an interpreter into a three-way that becomes a racially charged, cross-cultural slapstick. But relationships, love and even motherhood all become subsumed by her dissatisfactions and self-loathing, which lead her to pursue humiliation and debasement as auto-administered punishment. In a therapy group, she rejects the term “sex addict” in favor of assigning herself the outdated term “nymphomaniac.”

The film comes to seem as if Von Trier were locked in an argument with himself, Joe’s self-possessed sense of purpose in conflict with the man’s self-involved insecurities. (She eventually calls him out on his habit of redirecting her talks to topics he understands better.) That their final confrontation is somehow inevitable does not lessen its unsettling impact.

“Volume II” builds on emotional foundations from “Volume I,” even recasting the first film’s ironic humor with a darker pall. (And watching “Volume II” without seeing “Volume I” may leave viewers feeling a step behind.) Whether the two-part project could be slimmed into a single, stronger piece, like a double album with a weak Side 3, is up for debate.

Seen in its entirety, the two-part “Nymphomaniac” feels like both a summation and a series of notebook sketches, as if Von Trier were clearing the decks for some next, new phase. Few other filmmakers are capable of quite the same walloping power, though the film’s digressive, chaptered style gives it an offhand quality that asks for easy dismissal. Von Trier is such a masterful filmmaker that every new project comes on with the expectation and air of a totalizing masterwork. “Nymphomaniac: Volume II” creates the unsated sensation of having too much and wanting more.