October 10, 2014

Queer Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. II (2013)

Nymphomaniac Vol. II
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Udo Kier, Michael Pas

Nymphomaniac Vol. II continues the story told in Nymphomaniac Vol. I as the two movies were originally conceived as one single story before being split into two films). Nymphomaniac Vol. II takes Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin) in a darker and grittier direction, as she goes to increasingly extreme lengths to satisfy her sexual desires.

In the plus column, Nymphomaniac Vol. II has the first openly identified asexual character to appear in a major motion picture. In the negative column, the ending is one of the most problematic I have had the displeasure to witness, both from a dramatic *and* social justice perspective. Not only does it do a grave disservice to the characters, it's very nature reinforces accusations of misogyny against director Lars Von Trier.

After being found injured in the street in Vol. I, Joe continues to tell her story about her life as a nymphomaniac to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). In her quest for sexual release, Joe seeks out K (Jamie Bell), an unusual BDSM practitioner, but this leads to her neglecting her child and the end of her relationship with Jerôme (Shial LaBeouf). After K, Joe winds up working for L (Willem Dafoe) as a shady "debt collector". After Joe becomes a successful "debt collector", L suggests that Joe take on a protege P (Mia Goth). Joe is reluctant due to P's young age, but ends up cozying up to her anyways. The two end up forming a lesbian relationship, yet things quickly fall apart when Jerôme comes back into the picture.

The Queering
Never before have I found myself disliking a movie based solely on a single moment tacked onto the very end of the story. Not only does this moment dramatically undermine everything that comes before, it is both pretentious and serves absolutely no purpose other than to stroke Lars von Triers' ego. Everything that can be wrong with a piece of filmmaking is embodied in the last few moments before the end credits roll.

Before the ending Nymphomaniac Vol. II is on the same level as Vol. I. There are a few new wrinkles, such as Joe having to deal with being unable to seek sexual release and later engaging in a sexual relationship with a woman half her age. But for the most part, as with Vol. I there is a great deal to appreciate.

From a queer perspective, Vol. II expands upon elements that were only hinted at in Vol. 1. Seligman comes out here as asexual, making him the first character in a major motion picture to do so. Previously, asexuality has been limited to subtext, and for whatever reason, strongly associated with characters who engaged in cannibalism. (Examples: The Silence of the Lambs and Eating Raoul). Thus, I almost want to call him the first non-cannibal asexual character as well, but for the fact that potentially, there are other subtextual asexual characters out there I am unaware of.

One thing that occurred to me, is that both Seligman and and Joe go against gender stereotypes. Joe seeks out sexual pleasure, no matter the cost, in spite of society constantly telling woman that they should play hard to get. Seligman is asexual and seeks pleasure in the study of music and mathematics, in spite of society constantly telling men that they should do everything possible to spread their wild oats. While this perhaps makes sense, I cannot help but wonder what this might mean for the possibility of female asexual characters. Would most people even think a thing like that strange or would such a character ultimately appear perfectly normal to audiences? This is another reason I am little nervous about declaring Seligman the first openly identified non-cannibal asexual on film, it is quite possible there is a female character out there who fits the bill, but due to our society viewing woman as sexually passive, the characters' identity could easily slip by unnoticed, even by me.

In Lars von Triers' defense, both Joe and Seligman are complex individuals who both happen to exhibit elements of queer identity. There is also plenty of dialog (mostly from Seligman) defending human sexual desires and practices. While this at times borders on an author tract, it is still welcome to hear. Admittedly there are problematic places that Lars von Trier goes with this. For example, in the first film when Seligman defended Joe sexually assaulting a man on a train, and here Joe defends pedophiles who do not act on their desires. While I understand the sentiment, I don't see what is so great about a pedophile merely failing to harm a child. Shouldn't adulation be reserved for those who do genuine good, not merely fail to do bad?

One could potentially find things to criticize in the horrible way Joe's lesbian relationship ends in disaster, but that would ignore the fact that every relationship Joe develops ends badly. There is much more to criticize in the way Lars von Trier chooses to end the story and the way in undermines Seligmans' earlier claims of being asexual. While I try to keep in mind that films themselves are not obligated to adhere to social justice principles, there is much to mourn in what might have been. As it is, while it is nice to have an openly identified asexual character in a major motion picture, I cannot make the argument that this actually represents a step forward for asexual identity on the silver screen.

Pretty much only for completists who viewed Nymphomaniac Vol. I and want to see how the story ends. Just be warned about the pointless awfulness of the ending.

The Rating
1 star out of 4.


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  1. Hannibal Lector was asexual? I always thought of him as the stereotypic gay villain

  2. He's described as asexual quite often actually, from what I've seen.


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