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 Mr. 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).
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jamie Bell.
Rating: Unrated. Contains nudity, graphic sexuality, violence and profanity.
"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.
Mr. 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, Ms. 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," it never feels entirely exploitative, but neither does it feel particularly edifying.
Mr. Von Trier is exploring just how far Joe will go and 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 re-enactments of her morbidly dispassionate Passion Play.
The greatest strength of this installment is that Ms. 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 Mr. von Trier could have cast Mr. Bell or someone of his caliber to play Jerome, who's consistently underserved by Mr. 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 played by Mia Goth.
Convenient coincidences ensue, leading to the film's repulsive climax; its final moments can only be described as a colossal failure of nerve and imagination.
There's no doubt that Mr. 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.
Opens at the Harris Theater Friday.