The tragedy of adulthood, they say, is cloaked in the details. Lars von Trier, who thought deeply enough of this story to split his opus into dual 2-hour episodes, often explores that facet with no regard to modesty, and here is a movie in which yet another series of shocking revelations come barreling off the screen with shamelessness and bravado. What do they say of their heroine, the unfortunate and damaged Joe? Like most of the director’s greatest works, a sense of causality underlines the actions, as if to suggest that this persona is not in full command of key decisions, much less unfortunate outcomes. But how do we find empathy in a soul so wild and untamed, especially when her pursuits create unforgivable fallouts? What does she say that warrants our observation? The confronting nature of this, the second part of her lurid story, does not cast sidelong glances as the material. This is hard and unflinching subject matter, designed to convey momentary amusement as a therapy in dealing with a fate of harrowing depth and tragedy.
If “Volume I” educated us on the youthful promiscuity of a woman destined to be obsessed with sexual stimulation, “Volume II” sees that reality collapsed under the weight of destructive tendencies, revealing traces of cynicism underneath. Here, Joe’s path is both unbreakable and bleak, emphasized early on when she discovers that she has lost the ability to achieve orgasm. There is an early scene that frames this reality with contrasting irony; in it, Joe recounts a moment when she is brought to physical ecstasy while lying in a grassy field during a seizure, seemingly overpowered with a sensation that arrives beyond anyone’s thought or control. Perhaps the penultimate catalyst of her inevitable existence, was it just a randomized circumstance, or was it something of fate? Regardless of its source, that one moment adds resonance to the loss of her ability to climax in adulthood, and though her marriage to the love of her life (Shia LaBeouf) has culminated in the conception of a beautiful child, her unending search for that release presses on without regard to feeling or monogamy. Jerome, her husband, quietly acknowledges this premise with passive acceptance for a time, but hey, even the most patient partners do have their limits.
The journey takes Joe, not surprisingly, through circumstances that make the youthful antics of “Volume I” seem like G-rated fodder. Consider a scene when she sets up a rendezvous with two non-English-speaking black men standing on a street corner; after they arrive and strip her nude, they banter angrily back and forth in competitive fashion over which of her orifices they will get to use during intercourse (the camera remains stationary, honing in on Joe’s confused face while she stares at their massive erections). Later still, just when such endeavors to reach orgasm prove unsuccessful, she crosses paths with a secretive but busy fetishist (Jamie Bell) that, essentially, specializes in dominating and restraining women while inflicting great pain on them (“there is no safe word,” he ominously warns.). The relationship between he and Joe, his newest client, is rather intriguing; there is no sexual act exchanged between them, just a blatant display of power that he exercises over her submissive desire to feel some kind of sensation. Does this behavior suggest that Joe’s inability to reach climax is a direct result of conforming to intimate traditions in the bedroom? Perhaps, but more probing is this possible insight: maybe her body rejects normal experiences because of desensitization, and the only way to find pleasure now is to take the act to the pinnacle of violent excesses.
All of these stories are recounted with almost detached interest on part of their morose author, who narrates passively for the sake of appeasing the immense curiosity of her new friend Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Having rescued her in the earlier film from some kind of unknown assault, he leans forward intently when it comes to absorbing details, but his non-sexual essence gives him intriguing interpretive skills; often, her antics are likened to unrelated activities, including fly-fishing and musical orchestration. Skarsgard is effectively sublime in the supporting role, but Gainsbourg’s conviction is one of utter courage; the things she is tasked with doing in this material would be of great exploitative risk to any serious actress (think of Isabella Rossellini in “Blue Velvet,” for example). Yet her interpretation of Joe isn’t just an object of desire for the camera to manipulate; she commands these details with unabashed strength, and they add a certain facet of screwy wisdom to her insightful dialogue. The central point of this persona was very much hidden beneath graphic fantasies through much of the first movie, but we watched on with endless fascination, much like Seligman: it was as if we were eye-witnesses to a human tragedy unfolding in slow increments. The extremities of the visuals are a bit more sparse in “Volume II,” but that’s because the movie wants to use sex as a propelling factor in dealing with nihilism and depression; because of those experiences, Joe is now lost in a world of uncertain outcomes and careless whispers.
And then the movie takes an even bleaker turn in the final act, beginning with a subplot in which Joe is hired by a loan shark played by Willem Dafoe to use her sexual prowess to humiliate and pressure his clients. During these scenes, she exposes a closet pedophile, befriends a shy schoolgirl with a noticeable physical deformity, and then winds up crossing paths once again with her former husband, who she selfishly walked away from years prior for the sake of achieving orgasm. These scenes, alas, are exhausting because they take the material beyond where is necessary; Joe is fully exposed emotionally and mentally long before Dafoe’s character enters the picture, and the last half hour shows dedicated actors reaching near boredom with the narrative wheel-spinning. I suspect the purpose of them is to explain Joe’s present condition, but why bother with that? Good character studies are forthcoming with details, but don’t have to be thorough and literal, either.
Still, “Volume II” has a wide array of solid merits; it is well acted and paced, and von Trier creates an effective tone that suggests a powerful force is yanking its characters through an emotional kaleidoscope with unforgiving conviction. Seeing it also adds a certain hindsight that makes the first chapter of this endeavor more admirable, and collectively both movies are probably greater when observed together rather than separately. Why was it split up to begin with? I suspect the director didn’t want to burden viewers with one continuous four-hour viewing session, but at the same time felt he would be committing a narrative lobotomy by trimming any more the material for the sake of something less lengthy. Can you blame him, really? Here is a story that implies any possible resolutions are usually just elaborate false walls, blurring our eyes from the reality that true endings are not in the cards for characters like Joe.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Sex (Germany/UK); 2014; Not Rated; contains extremely pornographic nudity and scenes of simulated sex; Running Time: 123 Minutes
Charlotte Gainsbourg: Joe
Stellan Skarsgard: Seligman
Willem Dafoe: L
Jamie Bell: K
Shia LaBeouf: Jerome
Mia Goth: P
Produced by Bettina Brokemper, Marie Cecilie Gade, Peter Garde, Bert Hamelinck, Marianne Jul Hansen, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Marianne Slot, Sascha Verhey and Louise Vesth; Directed and written by Lars von Trier