When Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I came out, I frankly explained just how dirty it was, because while many people were curious about how it succeeded as art, there are also many who see the title Nymphomaniac and wonder, Just how dirty is it? (Whether that is for reasons of wanting to run toward or away from frank sexuality is not for me to judge.) That post ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger: I found Volume I to be “not incredibly” dirty and wonderfully silly, but knew there was still a second half coming — one that looked a bit different, a bit darker. Nymphomaniac: Volume II came out on VOD a few weeks ago and is out in theaters today. Like the first installment, the second one is garnering positive reviews from critics (currently at an 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), but let’s again answer the real question: How dirty is it?
Simply: Very. However, to its credit, Nymphomaniac is not a simple movie, so let me explain this a little more.
In my first dirtiness review, I wrote that “at least by today’s cable and movie standards, [Volume I] doesn’t reach an unbelievable level” of sex. Volume II has less actual sex than I, just as a measure of quantity — a percentage of total screen time. However, what sex there is is far more graphic than I. Last time, I counted only six instances that I felt went above and beyond the norm. In II, there are too many to count.
First of all, we see three erect penises. This might seem trivial compared to the cavalcade of flaccid penises in the first one, but erections are something you never see in mainstream movies and TV; hell, they aren’t seen in softcore porn. In a scene where Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and two men prepare for a double-penetration threesome, there are a few minutes of in-frame and in-focus erect penises shown of the other two participants before the plan is aborted. More extreme is a scene later in the movie, when Joe, now a debt collector, attempts to shame money out of a fellow by pulling down his pants and telling stories to get him aroused. He does and you see it happen in close-up. (I won’t spoil what story causes this or what Joe does about it, but I assure you it’s part of what makes Volume II much dirtier than I.)
And then there’s, as I put in my Volume I write-up, “a lot of things that fall under the BDSM umbrella.” Where Volume I involved Joe having “traditional, meat and potatoes intercourse” – albeit a lot of it – Volume II finds Joe no longer satisfied by such simple pleasures. In search of her orgasm, she puts herself in extreme situations to find it. Primarily this involves a “relationship” in which she is one of the women who show up to a nondescript basement to be spanked, whipped, and slapped in the face (one time with a hand wearing a glove with loose change in it) by K (Jamie Bell). The photo above is from that chapter of the story, but in the movie equal time is spent in a close-up of her bottom half, including a scene where she’s whipped 40 times with a cat o’ nine tails.
Still, what makes Volume II drastically dirtier than its predecessor is the tone. Volume I was a romp, Lars von Trier’s version of an American Pie–style sex comedy. Volume II is his erotic thriller. There’s an overall feeling of violence. Not necessarily just the K business, but also the entire last act, in which she becomes a debt collector. The camp of the first Volume is out, and in its place are guns and a baby; both make the situation incredibly tense, as they are wont to do. And the end is incredibly sexually dark, in a way that haunted me so much that I lost sleep and found myself watching old episodes of How I Met Your Mother as an attempted palate cleanser. Ultimately, it all creates a more complex portrait of sexual desire. Von Trier portrays sex as something that can be silly and fun and emotionally complicated and, even, dangerous. It’s dirty.