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‘Nymphomaniac Volume II’: Even less funny, less sexual and more ridiculous than the first

‘NYMPHOMANIAC VOLUME II’ ★1⁄2

Joe Charlotte Gainsbourg

Seligman Stellan Skarsgard

Young Joe Stacy Martin

Jerome Shia LaBeouf

K Jamie Bell

Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Lars von Trier. Running time: 124 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and available on demand,

Just because a film is made by a renowned and controversial director some regard as a mad genius doesn’t mean it can’t be as repulsive at times as a torture porn sequel cranked out by some cynical hack.

In the second half of Lars von Triers’ five-hour, sexually charged but almost never erotic film about one woman’s journey from Milan to Minsk — sorry, one woman’s journey through a lifetime of defining herself through her constant need for sexual encounters — there is a scene among the most distasteful I’ve ever witnessed in a mainstream film.

A little background first. For those who skipped the first installment of the film, “Nymphomaniac” begins with a middle-aged academic named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding a bloodied and beaten woman in an alley near his apartment. Her name is Joe. (Stacy Martin plays the young Joe; Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe in middle age.) Seligman scoops up Joe and nurses her recovery as she recounts the salacious details of a near constant stream of sex since she was a teenage girl and she made a sport of seeing how many men she could seduce on a train.

In the scene in question, Jamie Bell (about as far as you can get from “Billy Elliott”) plays “K,” a methodically brutal sadist who slaps, ties up, whips and otherwise degrades women who have come to him, asking for such humiliation. K bends Joe over a sofa, her wrists and legs so tightly bound that if she squirms even a little bit, it will only succeed in tightening the knots. He pulls her dress over her hips, takes down her underwear, and beats her so viciously she bruises up and bleeds.

That Bell gives a terrifyingly effective performance only makes the scene that much more difficult to watch. That von Trier lingers over Joe’s physical suffering while Gainsbourg conveys the emotional madhouse that is this woman’s psyche didn’t make me admire the director’s willingness to push the envelope. It was far too sickening to be even the least bit enlightening. There was an element of cruelty to the scene that took me right out of the film. Of course Bell didn’t really inflict serious injuries on Gainsbourg; of course it was all designed to … well. I don’t know. Remind us once again of how seriously damaged this woman is? We already got that point.

“Nymphomaniac Volume I” actually had some sexy moments, and more than few pitch-black chuckles. There was also something to be said for the sheer lunacy of the asexual Seligman comparing Joe’s encounters to fishing and the Fibonacci sequence.

Plus we had Shia LaBeouf establishing himself as the clear frontrunner for Worst Accent of the Year, as he drifted in and out of a Cockney accent as Jerome, who takes Joe’s virginity, at her request. But in the second hour, “Nymphomaniac Volume I” grew tedious and repetitive — and “Nymphomaniac Volume II” is less funny, less sexual, more ridiculous AND the ending is like the payoff of a cheap and very long con.

Joe and Jerome reconnect and try to have a conventional family, but you can imagine how that plays out. Joe gets a job as a debt collector for the mob, because she has a very particular set of skills (and an utter lack of empathy) that allow her to extract the truth from weak-willed men.

Oh, and Joe also grooms a next generation nympho, a Joe 2.0 if you will, by going to the young girl’s volleyball games, bringing her home, having sex with her and also making her feel less self-conscious about her cauliflower ear. Yes, it’s all intriguingly weird, but eventually it’s all about the weird and we find Joe and her increasingly sad and self-destructive escapades less and less interesting. Joe labels key people in her life by a simple letter, working chronologically from the letter “A.” (Jerome is the rare exception who gets a name.) Jamie Bell is K, Willem Dafoe is L, Mia Goth is P. One begins rooting for Seligman to say, “Can we just skip to X, Y and Z?”

At times Von Trier flashes, so to speak, some wonderfully effed-up visual humor, as when two brothers who don’t speak a word of English argue about who’s going to do what with Joe, their respective physical excitements bobbing up and down as the argument gets more heated. The comical miscasting of LaBeouf aside, most of the performances here are intensely effective. Before the Gainsbourg-Skarsgard dynamic gives way to the insanely stupid ending, it’s a pleasure to watch these skilled actors conversing on a set so sparse they could be onstage in a two-character play.

But for all of von Trier’s attempts to go big and go bold, the two “Nymphomaniac” films ultimately come across as a self-indulgent marathon run on a treadmill. We’ve seen every inch of Joe’s body and we’ve explored myriad corners of her mind and soul. It’s an exhausting exercise in going nowhere slow.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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