Note: This film was watched as part of a double-feature marathon with its preceding chapter, allowing it to play very much like one epic four-hour-film. To get a read on my full reaction of experiencing this film, please begin with my review for Volume I – RM
After listening to a sexy woman talk about her many trysts for almost two hours, any man or woman could be forgiven for feeling a little bit enticed. There’s only so much sexual frankness that a listener can endure before they start to squirm a bit in their seat. However, eventually one has to wonder about the cost – the emotional toll that such proclivities demand, and the compromises such a lifestyle demands. When one considers these tolls and proclivities, does the listener begin to empathize, sympathize, or silently judge.
Turns out, just like so many other sexual tastes and preferences, it’s all in the eye of the beholder…and that’s not necessarily the rightful place for it.
NYMPHOMANIAC Volume II finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) continuing to recount her sexual history to her Good Samaritan, Selligman (Stellan Skarsgård).
She now reveals the curious contradiction that she found herself in. After years of sleeping around with any man that she found filled a particular need, she has committed herself fully to Jérôme (Shia LaBeouf). However, despite finally being faithful to one person, her body has turned on her and stopped turning stimulation into full-on orgasm. The result takes a toll on Jérôme, as he is now (almost literally) being fucked sideways in an effort to satisfy his partner. When he eventually suggests to Joe that she also seek outside help, it’s as if a floodgate opens.
Joe goes back to getting men to lavish attention on her, sometimes even prodding her into precarious situations.
Such is the case when Joe begins to submit to a masochist she refers to as “K” (Jamie Bell). So intense is the feeling she gets from her time with him, that she is willing to risk everything she has built with Jérôme in the name of sexual release.
After taking a few more bruises to her ego – not the sorts of bruises she enjoys – Joe is forced to confront who she is head-on. While it will allow her an opportunity to parlay her tastes into a whole new line of work, one wonders if walking in the darkness for so long has cost Joe any chance at all to step back into the light?
In my review of the first volume of this series, I mentioned that sitting down for these films came with preconceptions. Specifically, I mentioned expectations of seeing something shameful, daunting, enticing, and dirty. In the previous volume, these feelings came and went, mostly because we were watching Joe on her life’s upward trajectory. In volume two though, those feelings are omnipresent. In scene after scene, we feel as though we have been ferried across the river and are now walking along a rockier shore. Some will judge Joe in this series of events, some will feel sorry for her. No matter what though, everybody will worry about her.
What this half of the story underlines is just how much Joe’s activities were steered by the enjoyment she was getting out of them. The sex was fun, so she kept things light. Sure, she might have upset a relationship or two, but by and large, she wasn’t doing anything worrisome – or even things that we in the audience might do if we had more nerve and less guilt. Now though, without getting that beautiful release that sex was giving her, Joe needs to get creative…and “getting creative” also means “getting risky”. She spells it out herself – that her source of release is now in the hands of dangerous men. Let’s put aside moral implications for a moment, and just discuss the safety of what she is doing. She is putting herself into harm’s way, and bringing physical pain upon herself.
She likens it from travelling from the light to the darkness, and we can’t help but worry about her as things begin to dim.
It’s likely that many in the audience will be left aghast at the way sex becomes a priority for Joe over her own family. Some will shake their heads and “tsk” at the way she walks out the door with compulsion and forsakes her household responsibilities. However, the film wants us to feel that way and point a finger at our hypocrisy. It wants us to forget for a moment that if Joe were a husband/father doing these things, that we would shrug and say “typical”. But because she is a wife/mother, she is somehow supposed to be above it. But that’s just it – NYMPHOMANIAC understands better than we do, that young-or-old, male-or-female, we are all driven by our own biology more than we want to admit. The only thing keeping us in check is not a higher level of evolution or self-control, but just an inability to deal with the consequences.
If more of us could, then odds are more of us would act on the sorts of impulses Joe has – and her understanding of this is what makes her especially good at her job as a leg-breaker. As for the rest of us, the jury’s out on whether we’d be better off because of it or not.
By the time the dust settles, we allow Selligman to speak for us and absolve Joe of her sins. She’s not even looking for forgiveness, but we’re ready to forgive her anyway. We see a humanity in her, and an inspiring image of a woman comfortable with who she is and where it’s led her. Like Selligman, we want to tuck her in and pull the shade so she can get some much-deserved rest. Then, if we’re honest – if we’re really honest – we’d do something in the vein of what Selligman does next. We’d see this sort of sexual frankness as a green light to let our own freak flag fly. We wouldn’t have he stones to follow Joe’s lead and venture out in search of our true sexual identity. No, we’d take advantage of someone we felt morally beneath us to make ourselves feel superior in several ways.
Like the delusion of self-control that this film underlines, there’s only a minimal amount holding us back from using the people more sexually open than ourselves. We’ll demean them, judge them, and scold them…but give us half a chance and a moment of weakness, and we’ll think nothing of manipulating them for our own ends.
In the face of this, the films looks us squarely in the eye, and kicks us in the nuts…and we deserve it.
Any film that dealt with even one or two of these issues and laced them into a narrative would deserve high marks for its frankness and candour. For a film not only to tackle all of them, but to give each page in the book so much time to breathe and resonate is astonishing. This film is audacious, stunning, risky, and viciously honest. It knows how much we want to paint over the mirrors in the room, but instead it forces us to look straight into them.
NYMPHOMANIAC sells itself as something steamy. In reality, it’s the coldest shower we’re ever bound to take.