There's good and bad to report about Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac Volume II. Bad news first: it's not as good as Volume One. The good news: there is no Volume III.
Von Trier remains inscrutable, which appeals to some people, and has a few singing his praises. For some, he's this era's art house riddler, an exotic import who can't quite entertain but can certainly baffle. I'd hate to think he will turn out to be this era's Bergman or Fellini, although a generation weened on Marvel Comics movies may find something intriguing about his gigantic but dreary canvases. There's nothing cinematic to enjoy here, for his scenes are static, his dialog heavy-handed and stilted, and his actors wander from scene to scene like sleepwalkers. There is the occasional closeup of a male or female sex organ, some violence, and the occasional tease that something might actually happen, but it all adds up to nothing. There's a joke of an ending that some may find funny, but any thinking person will find it painful to sit through such a turgid four hour non-epic only to have the payoff be a crude gag that was barely funny when Woody Allen used it in Play It Again Sam (yes, the one about being turned down by a nympho).
The first volume was a meandering mess, but featured some good performances, and was at times carried along by the mere novelty of its own audacity. One expected Vol. II to change course and offer something different - the previews tacked onto the end of Vol. 1 promised as much - but it's more of the same. The only difference is that now our protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is at the point where she can't feel anything in her sexual encounters. The result is that she basically repeats all of the same riffs of Vol. 1, but now she can't enjoy herself. Poor girl!
In Vol. II we see flashbacks to Joe's childhood when she had spontaneous orgasms and religious visions, and a remembrance of when her beloved father (Christian Slater) took her for a walk in the woods where they noticed that bare trees resembled human souls. Such poetic groping is minimal, though, for this belabored second act follows Joe in her journey to reclaim her dead vagina. She does this by engaging in three-ways with black men, and then submitting herself to the local sadist who whips her with a riding crop. The whipping scenes are interminably long, and Von Trier imagines we're shocked by seeing Joe's ass cheek's splitting open with each lash. The effect, though, is like listening to some old timer trying to spook us; we nod out of politeness, but it's a tale we've heard a dozen times and no longer has any power. (It was more interesting to see an earlier scene of Joe flogging her suddenly unresponsive groin with a wet towel, her desperation familiar to any man who has found himself in the same situation.)
Joe has a child with her old beau Jerome (Shi LaBeouf) but the child ends up in an orphanage, given up by Jerome because Joe can't curb her strange lust. Joe later attends a meeting for sex addicts, but feels too rebellious to go through with any sort of therapy. In the film's most unlikely twist, Joe finds herself working for a collection agency, and then acting as a mentor for a 15-year-old girl with a deformed ear. Joe and her little protege fall in love, but just when it appears Joe has found something real that might be good for her, there is one more betrayal to come. The film ends with Joe vowing to rid herself of all sexuality.
Vol. II doesn't stand on its own as a film. While sitting through Vol. II, I found myself longing for Vol. 1, back in that golden era of last weekend, before Von Trier trotted out such old, hackneyed tropes as interracial sex, riding crops, and lesbianism. What is this? 1922? Von Trier may think he's pushing the envelope here, but his ideas seem lifted from his granddad's old stag films.