April 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Nymphomaniac Vol. II' is second epic of obsession

Charlotte Gainsbourg is self-loathing Joe in 'Nymphomaniac: Vol. II.' (Magnolia Pictures)

In “Nymphomaniac Vol. II” writer-director Lars Von Trier moves on to kink, crime and cruelty, none of which will come as a surprise to those who’ve seen “Vol. I.”

On the other hand, very little could be surprising to anyone who braved the first half of Von Trier’s epic about obsession and gender roles. The director’s cool balancing act of whimsy, blasphemy, madness and mortality in that film leaves all possibilities open.

Here, then, we have the severely beaten self-described and self-loathing nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) still telling her life’s story of depravity to her kindly-if-odd rescuer, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). For the most part, the flashbacks in this film leave behind the younger Joe (Stacy Martin) and feature Gainsbourg.

Joe tries to settle down as she ages, but proves to have too many needs for her husband (Shia LaBeouf), who is now also the father of her child. He tells her she can take on lovers, which she does aplenty. But then Joe discovers the strange but powerful attraction of playing submissive to a sadist (Jamie Bell, a long way from “Billy Elliot”).

This eventually disrupts any chance of domestic bliss, and Joe’s proclivities tend to get in the way of long-term employment. So she becomes a bill collector of sorts for criminal types, convincing those in debt to pay up with either psychological or physical torture.

At the suggestion of a mentor (Willem Dafoe), she finds a young, beautiful but damaged girl, P (Mia Goth), and begins molding her as an assistant. And she finds herself falling in something like love.

Joe tells all this to the patient Seligman and the two discuss her dead soul, her innocence and guilt, all her strange turns with a mix of historical context, tangential references and dark humor.

It’s very weird, given, but it’s also effective. Von Trier is questioning whether Joe — note the spelling of her name — is just a victim of gender politics; would she have spun so out of control with her urges if she’d been male, or would they have been considered normal, even healthy?

Von Trier is often labeled a misogynist, but that’s far too simple. He puts his female characters through extremes, no doubt, but much of his real hatred seems to be directed at the men who provide or define those extremes. When it comes to self-loathing, he knows whereof he speaks.

'Nymphomaniac Vol. II'

GRADE: A-

Not rated

Running time: 123 minutes

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