The biggest surprise about “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” Lars von Trier’s portrait of a sexually compulsive young woman, was how funny and relatively gentle-natured it was. Although the film contained plenty of the graphic sexuality von Trier promised during the pre-release hype, its most compelling passages were all talk, in the form of a night-long encounter between the protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and a mysterious, monastic figure named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard).
“Nymphomaniac: Volume II” takes up immediately where the last movie left off, with the inexplicably battered and bruised Joe explaining just how she came to be beaten up and abandoned in the cold, wet alley where Seligman found her. At this point, her recollections — of getting together with her longtime love interest, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), having a child, losing her orgasm and looking for it in increasingly dangerous places — become exponentially darker and more shockingly confrontational. Von Trier has become notorious for putting his actresses through a difficult, degrading series of self-abnegating paces, from his breakout film “Breaking the Waves” to the musical “Dancer in the Dark” and “Dogville.” In “Volume II” he reverts to form with a vengeance, putting Joe — and, by extension, Gainsbourg — in any number of masochistic scenarios that are played out with ritualized brutality and horrific close-up shots of welts, wounds and weeping, open sores.
That’s entertainment, sure, but is it art? As transgressive as the imagery is in “Volume II” — including a ludicrous scene in which two men in florid sexual excitement argue in a foreign African dialect while Joe watches quietly in the background — it never feels entirely exploitative, but neither does it feel particularly edifying. Von Trier is exploring just how far Joe will go — how many taboos she will willfully disobey — in order to find sexual fulfillment that takes on the contours of spiritual sacrifice and salvation.
But that journey is far more compelling in her confession to Seligman than in the reenactments of her morbidly dispassionate Passion Play. The greatest strength of this installment is that Gainsbourg has center stage; her scenes with Jamie Bell, who plays a cold-eyed sadist Joe enlists to torture her, are all the more troubling for being so brilliantly acted. (One wishes von Trier could have cast Bell or someone of his caliber to play Jerome, who’s consistently underserved by LaBeouf.)
Even at its most depraved, Joe’s journey, and her confession to Seligman, are still compelling enough to propel “Volume II” until the story becomes hopelessly over-plotted, with the introduction of a teenager named P, played by Mia Goth. Convenient coincidences ensue, leading to the film’s repulsive climax; its final moments can be described only as a colossal failure of nerve and imagination. There’s no doubt that von Trier knows how to deploy cinematic language for maximum effect — he is, quite simply, a superb filmmaker. But in this case, he confuses challenging audiences with simply leaving them in the dark.
★ ★Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity, graphic sexuality, violence and profanity. No one younger than 18 admitted.