What to do if you are Lars Von Trier? Antichrist got people up in arms back in 2009, with its penetration, genital mutilation and (for some) questionable gender politics. Then Melancholia, a far gentler film, was overshadowed by his bizarre outburst at Cannes that year (calm down, Lars!). Named festival persona non grata and refusing to give any more interviews, it seemed unsurprising that his next work announced was a hardcore pornographic film. I mean, why not?
What is perhaps surprising, then, is how soft this film feels. While there is no end of naked flesh on show, the literary framing device renders it all somehow palatable, even banal. Bookish loner Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying bleeding in the snow and takes her in. In order to help him understand what happened, Joe tells him the story of her life, revolving around her nymphomania, desperate to make him see her as a bad person.
This marks Von Trier’s third collaboration with Gainsbourg, and the magical number three is everywhere in evidence. From the diegetic references to the devil’s note, or tritone, and ménage à trois, to the three poundings which remove titular nymph(o) Joe’s virginity. There are actually five more, but five seems to be a fausse piste…unless three is the fausse piste and none of it means anything. More important, though, is the trinity formed around the story through narrative, narration and narrator.
There is Von Trier in Skarsgård’s passive listener, trying to promote a philosophy of ‘if you have wings, why not fly?’ but finding himself increasingly shocked by Joe’s revelations. He even gets in a little dig at those who don’t differentiate between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
As the storyteller, Gainsbourg gets little to do, but is still the perfect mouthpiece for Von Trier’s oddly jarring dialogue. Playing teenage Joe, British actress Stacy Martin gets more meaty stuff: she impresses both on her own merits but also in convincingly playing a young Gainsbourg.
Other actors don’t get much to work with and have varying degrees of success. Shia LaBeouf looks the part, but his English accent is fairly dire. Christian Slater’s is better, and his small role is quite touching. Best of the guests is Uma Thurman, absolutely wonderful as a cuckolded wife in a scene which veers between hilarious and horrible, dark and silly.
Elsewhere, this feels like a celebration of Von Trier’s interests – we have a voyage through his favourite cinematic landscapes: the hospital; the damp, oppressive non-spaces; the forest. We have extremes of emotion played out in microcosm. Everything is just that little bit abnormal. A scene of sexual adventure on a train is somehow haunting, as all his best work is.
The film here reviewed is the first part of the four hour, two-part cut, which is being released in cinemas (eventually we will get Von Trier’s five-hour version, complete with extra hardcore scenes). In this version, there is a cliffhanger that leaves us – like Seligman, like Joe herself, even – desperate to find out what happens next. I don’t feel able to give a score to a film as yet unfinished. I want to know how it ends.