When Lars Von Trier told Charlotte Gainsbourg his next film was going to be a porno, she “thought it was a joke.” But even though it wasn’t a joke, the film he ended up making, Nymphomaniac, is full of them. Its dark wit and comedic timing are more remarkable than the unsimulated sex and privates parts. The story begins with a stranger finding Gainsbourg’s character, Joe, lying in the street. When he takes her back to his flat for tea, she recounts her life story, beginning when she first discovered her vagina at two years-old, and as her interlocutor compares her blowjobs and orgies to fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers, the film reads more like Tristram Shandy than Behind the Green Door.
Although it’s neither as shocking nor as sexy as you’d think, the film’s performances are exceptional. Von Trier is the second male director in recent months to make headlines for putting young actresses in prosthetic vaginas, but unlike Abdellatif Kechiche, who’s come under fire for terrorizing his young leads in Blue Is the Warmest Color, the Dane’s performers have only sung his praises. “I can see how much he reveals of himself, how honest he is about his suffering, and I don’t see that in a lot of other directors I’ve worked with,” says Gainsbourg, who’s become something of a muse for the director, with leading roles in his last three films.
As she spoke, I found myself leaning in embarrassingly close, intoxicated as much by her monochromatic beige leisure wear as her lilting British accent. Even though it’s easy for me to see what it is about her, she seems at a loss for why Von Trier keeps casting her. “I still don’t know a lot about him. He touches me a lot and there’s a lovely friendship that has happened, but I can’t explain what he knows of me or why he chooses me.” Gainsbourg doesn’t pretend to know why Von Trier chooses to project himself onto female characters, either. “But I do find this story much more interesting because it’s a woman,” she added.
Von Trier’s versions of himself are always female and always tortured souls racked with pathologies. This time around Gainsbourg shares the role of the nympho Joe with 23-year-old model-turned-actress Stacy Martin, whose doe-eyed cynical gaze undermines any sentimentality in the film’s first act, which will be in theaters Friday–the second half is later being released in April. Martin’s deadpan performance is miles away from her real-life ebuillence. In person, she seems more like a chatty grad student than the unromantic young sex addict she plays. “Lars would always say, ‘you’re at 70 per cent, go to minus 20 per cent,’” Martin said, explaining how Von Trier coaxed the subtle performance from her.
The role is Martin’s screen debut, and it’s not the first time Von Trier has cast an inexperienced lead. In Dancer in The Dark, Bjork took on her first film role. (The Icelandic pop star infamously found Von Trier a terror to work with, writing on her blog that he “needs female to provide his work soul. And he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming.”) Stellan Skarsgård, for whom Nymphomaniac was the sixth film he’d worked on with Von Trier, gave some insight into why the director is attracted to working with actors like Martin and Bjork. “He doesn’t have to fight their skills,” explained Skarsgård. “Skill on film can be terrible. What you want to do is to produce authentic life and your tools can be a hindrance.”
Von Trier’s talent at destroying those skills are maybe best seen in aging Hollywood heartthrob Christian Slater’s surprising performance in Nymphomaniac, where he plays the young sex addict’s father. “I remember doing a scene where I was looking at the books my daughter had been looking at and I remember doing one of these actor-y looks,” Slater explained, staring into the distance and bringing a thumb and forefinger to his chin. “Lars just comes running in and says ‘No, don’t do that!’” Von Trier demands that his actors take risks. “You can destroy a scene. It’s fine,” noted Skarsgård. “I raped Nicole Kidman in Dogville, and after five times, Lars says to me, ‘Stellan, do you think you could play it like a romantic comedy?’”
Over the last two decades, Skarsgård has witnessed Von Trier develop his approach. “All directors are control freaks. You see the film Europa, for instance. It’s a brilliant job, but it’s dead. It’s like a block of ice. Why? Because he decided exactly what the actors should do. There is no life in that, and he realized that, smart as he is.” In the years after, Von Trier reduced his filmmaking to its bare bones. Along with fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, he drafted the Dogme manifesto, which outlawed props, special effects, tripods, filters, special lighting—almost everything. Since Antichrist, however, Von Trier has begun to bring back some of these filmmaking tools. “In this one we even had tracking shots,” said Skarsgård about Nymphomaniac. “I think I even saw a crane on set.”
While it’s not as shocking as Antichrist nor as wonderfully weird Dancer in the Dark, the way that Von Trier lures performances from his leading ladies in Nymphomaniac suggests maybe we still have something to look forward to from the Danish director. “When I started working with Lars, he was a little clumsy with actors, he was a little clumsy with his relationships physically and mentally with people,” noted Skarsgård. “But now he is a very, very good actor director. He has become much, much smoother.”