|Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.|
The first film, which is the slight better of the two, followed young Joe (Stacy Martin), whose sexual adventurousness included picking up men on trains and sleeping with her boss (Shia LaBeouf), with whom she now has a young child at the beginning of the second film.
At the climax - sorry, couldn't help myself - of part one, Joe has lost her capacity for sexual sensation and, at the beginning of volume two, Jerome (LaBeouf) has encouraged her to engage in some extracurriculars to get her groove back. This leads to one of the first of the film's awkward scenes as Joe and two African men - completely nude with the camera placed just so - negotiate the terms of a "sandwich," which I'll leave to your imagination. This scene then leads to a discussion of the word "Negro" between Joe and Seligman that is forced and uncomfortable, not because of its subject matter but in how it is handled.
Even more uncomfortable is a later scene during which Joe encounters a pedophile, prompting her to tell Seligman that the 95 percent of people who are born with tendencies of pedophilia, but do not act on them, should receive a medal. She goes further to compare her sexual "outlaw" status with the pedophile's. Von Trier is a great filmmaker ("Melancholia" or "Breaking the Waves," for instance) who occasionally peddles in provocation ("The Idiots") just to shake up the bourgeois. In the case of these two aforementioned scenes, he misses the mark and comes off as too obvious.
However, many of the film's other scenes are provocative and manage to get under the skin. Joe's sexual adventures first began as a method to seek pleasure, but soon devolve into a need for pain. During a series of sequences, Joe meets with K (Jaime Bell, giving this film the much needed jolt delivered by Uma Thurman in the first volume), a masochist who ties up his "clients" and delivers brutal spankings and slaps, but does not have sex with them. During one absurdly funny scene, he gives a wrapped Christmas present to Joe that turns out to be... well, I wouldn't give that away.
During the film's final third, before which Von Trier toys with audience expectations during a scene involving a baby and a window that recalls his 2009 film "Antichrist," Joe gets involved with criminal activity, brings on a protege who becomes a lover and a reunion, of sorts, with Jerome occurs. While these sequences are perfectly well executed, they feel a little out of place with the rest of the film. However, Joe's comparing herself to a deformed tree leaning on a mountain, which is seen during one of the film's more beautifully shot scenes, rings poignantly true. This being a Von Trier movie, the film ends on a cynical and bleak note that most will not likely see coming.
So, while the film earns points for its ambition, daring and courage from its actors, "Nymphomaniac Vols. I and II" are not among Von Trier's best films. Rather, I'd put the two movies alongside second tier entries such as "Antichrist," which was gorgeously shot and truly shocking, and "Zentropa." I liked these films, but didn't feel quite as spellbound as I did during "Melancholia," "Dogville," "Breaking the Waves" or "Dancer in the Dark." That being said, anyone with a serious interest in cinema will not want to skip out on them.