This is linked with my review of Volume I.
In Nymphomaniac Volume I, director Lars von Trier studies why Joe (young version played by Stacy Martin) explored her sexuality initially and dealt with the trials of becoming a woman. Her feelings of love and intimacy were blurred as she challenged her sexuality with a host of male lovers before climaxing into a deeper relationship with old flame, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf).
When Nymphomaniac Volume II starts up, we are once again thrusted into the relationship between Jerome and Joe but suddenly realize that whatever foundation was there at first, has quickly deteriorated and become not much of anything. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is now struggling to have any pleasure out of the intimacy that defined her throughout the first film and as the second part begins, we see her struggling to keep her relationship with Jerome afloat.
The switch to Gainsbourg as Joe helps to make the second part much more bearable than the first part mainly because she has the ability to be a lot more captivating than Martin was, even though the latter wasn’t bad at all. What also helps is the script’s more poignant look at what makes Joe tick and why she does what she does, In the first part, the character was portrayed as more of a sex-obsessed being rather than someone who needed sex as a form of purpose.
This is revealed in part two when Joe goes to visit K (Jamie Bell) and his kinky workshop. The removed looks and absent gazes by the other women waiting in the room show that this place isn’t an area of pleasure but of requirement. These women have to come and be subjected to K’s needs and it has become a required routine rather than something they want to do weekly. Joe, who to this point has been in control of her desires, takes awhile to realize her purpose in coming to this place and even then she struggles to have the weird intimacy she shares with her partners taken away by K, who does not share the same feelings that she does and is more detached than she was.
This is where Gainsbourg’s work pays off because she has the amazing ability to carry these disturbing scenes between torture and being home to take care of her child with Jerome. With him out at work, she even leaves the baby all alone at one point prompting a lot of fear that something will happen to him but eventually leads to her leaving Jerome and moving on.
She finds her purpose again with L (Willem Dafoe) who gives her the opportunity to put her sexuality to use. And this is where Nymphomaniac pays off. The three hours of film prior to this moment have finally culminated into a use for Joe’s “gift.” Using her sexuality to help L extort money from clients, she now has regained the power that she craved so much before her time with Jerome.
Nymphomaniac Volume II feels more like it has left that notion that there is an untouched, deeper meaning within the story that Volume I seemed to have and focused more on diving into this character more like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) is doing within the narrative. But in the end, it still seems like something that never was able to figure out what it wanted to be: an epic or a journey of self discovery.