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With Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier Delivers Brainy X-Rate Shocker

03/14/2014 11:12 am ET | Updated May 14, 2014

When Lars von Trier announced a while back in Cannes that he planned to make a film about a nymphomaniac, eyes rolled or appetites were whetted, depending on how one felt about the bad boy auteur of international cinema. The Danish provocateur had previously delivered two films that plumbed the depths of his publicly acknowledged depression: Antichrist, with its infamous acts of genital mutilation; and Melancholia, a second meditation on despair -- though leavened by wit and moments of grace -- which conjures the world's end in some of the most gorgeous imagery ever committed to film.

Now von Trier has made made good on his Cannes alert with Nymphomania: Volume I, due to hit theaters March 21. As in the previous two films, it stars Charlotte Gainsbourgh as the titular sex fiend in a role requiring industrial strength courage and cool. It's almost like she's become the poster girl for von Trier's searingly honest soundings of the human psyche. Of course horn dogs abound in literature (Casanova), opera (Don Juan), film (Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen's Shame). But a portrait of a female erotomaniac, from childhood to age 50, is more novel, especially in a Lars Von Trier production offering graphic depictions of sexuality unprecedented in a mainstream feature film. Those who were shocked by Bert and Ernie sharing a room in Sesame Street are advised to stay away.

Volume I tracks the story of Joe (Gainsbourg) a self-diagnosed nympho who is discovered seriously messed up in an alley by an older bachelor, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). The ascetic, bookish Seligman takes her home and tends to her wounds, as she recounts her erotic history (portrayed in flashback by newcomer Stacy Martin), blaming herself for the collateral damage she's inflicted by using men for her own pleasure. "I've always demanded more from the sunset," Joe says to explain her compulsions.

The film is structured like a novel with chapters, Joe's sexcapades alternating with learned, wide-ranging conversations with Seligman, and cutting away to quirky visual digressions that von Trier tosses in as witty asides. Whatever else you might take away from this film, the director's joy in filmmaking shines forth at every turn. Also on hand are Shia LaBeouf as Joe's first lover and future nemesis, Christan Slater as her beloved doctor father, and Uma Thurman as the unhinged wife of a man unable to resist Joe.

I recently got a chance to chat with some of the cast of Nymphomaniac, who were united in their awe for von Trier. Sadly absent was Shia La Beouf, shot in one sex scene from a truly ingenious angle. Though maybe we were watching one of the hard-working body doubles used for sexual encounters throughout -- and surely deserving of onscreen credit.

First up, Uma Thurman, tall, SoHo-stylish, a surprisingly bawdy laugh. She appears in an extended cameo as a betrayed wife who confronts her husband in Joe's lair, shlepping her three young sons.

How did you react when you got offered the part?

This film was a real treat for me. It's the first thing I've done since having a baby. I've always wanted to work with Lars so that phone call offering me the monologue was a dream come true. There's more acting to be done in those seven pages than what you'd do in a whole movie. It's a spectacular scene: is she a complicated woman? Or is she simply going through a complicated moment in her life? There's humor/sadness/outrage/shock and horror.

What was it like to work with Lars von Trier?

I prepared as if I were doing a one-act play. But Lars wants to see what you can do with it rather than be a puppet. And it was true what they say: He does not shoot in a typical manner, they were all long, single bodied takes, largely hand held. And he shoots in real time -- 25 minutes or more. I had the great opportunity -- which you really only get on stage -- to fluidly play through the wife's emotions about her situation, revelation after revelation. You know, film is all broken up. She runs and she cries. Then she gets up ... It's a technique to do that well. Lars is exploring people's inner contradictions: like the sex addict who can't feel. Not many contemporary dramatic writers focus on these human questions.

The real shocker of the wife's scene is that she brings along her children.

On first reading I was, Oh my God, that alone is completely out of control. All her mothering instincts are in the car. But Lars is so interesting. Here's a movie about a character that most movies would simply villain-ize as the whore, the slut, the femme fatale. And he creates an in-depth study of that person as a human being, with all her flaws, her pain at the loss of her father, her inability to control the compulsion. Lars curates the compulsion -- it's mind-blowing!

Do you agree when people call von Trier a misogynist?

What about all the screenwriters who don't write women? Lars has the courage to examine female characters from every angle, good and bad. The actresses in his movies win awards. And I found the movie very unexploitative and untitillating. It's more about pain. I mean, the courage of him, the honesty! I'm sorry, you shouldn't gush, but I think this film will be very long lasting, dissected and discussed in thesis papers.

How does he come across as a person?

Very sensitive, fragile, profoundly intelligent. Thank God for him he has a sense of humor because otherwise he probably wouldn't be on the planet any more. I'm very moved by him, he has a huge amount of compassion and empathy for his characters. I hope he doesn't suffer as much as his characters because he's a great artist.

Stacy Martin (the young Joe), more naked in the film than not, and today in demure black ruffles to the neck.

This is virtually your first movie. How did you manage the many sex scenes?

I got to protect myself, I had a porn double. Shooting was all very mechanical. You'd have black dots on your body to block the action. You'd shoot the scene twice, then the porn doubles come in. The crew becomes desensitized to the sex scenes.

What was it like working with Shia?

He was very happy to be working with Lars. There were some awkward sex scenes. But we just got over it, we thought, We're here to work for Lars. Shia was very determined and passionate, he had a great commitment to the part.

Charlotte Gainsbourgh, dressed down in anti-chic schmattes, no makeup, eel-thin, breathy Brit cultivated voice.

How did you get involved with the project?

When Lars said in Cannes that his next film would be a porn film I thought it was a joke, a provocation. Then he sent me a synopsis that was very close to the film. Chapter headings plus Joe's conversations with Seligman, each an opposite character. Lars told me, you'll talk a great deal.

I was very attracted to the script, not understanding the whole thing but attracted to that character even though she's so far away from me and so negative about herself and human beings and society. She touches me. I don't have much to say about her sex addiction. The film for me is about the voyage to know more about herself and being unable to live in this society. Wanting to take the blame but also talking about love. The film is much broader than simply nymphomania. In the end Joe makes a break and copes with herself much better.

You seem almost like a muse to von Trier, or at least his mouthpiece. Why is he attracted to you as an actress?

I don't think I'm a muse -- it's himself that he puts into his characters. He's both Joe and Seligman. I got involved with Antichrist when another actress dropped out. I thought it was pure chance. The character's called "She." I had no persona, we shot in Germany. I got to know him but he's still very mysterious to me. He knows a lot about me; I don't know much about him. He touches me a lot and we have a lovely friendship. I can't explain why he chooses me.

You've played three characters for him in films that deal with suffering and depression. Is this a trilogy?

I don't see it that way. What I do see is how honest he is. On set in Antichrist he showed me what anxiety attacks were because he was going through them all the time. I don't see that kind of honesty in other directors I've worked with.

Stellan Sarsgard

Is the character of Seligman meant to provide some sort of comic relief?

I think Lars is funny all the time. Seligman is an innocent, all his knowledge comes from books. My character is the "nerd" side of Lars. He's struggling to live in a society that doesn't accept him. His digressions about, say, fly fishing [which he likens to Joe's trolling for men] shows his idiocy. After Breaking the Waves, we became friends. I like to hang with him, we're like kids playing in a sandbox. In Breaking, he had a sign on the wall saying, Make Mistakes. In Dogville, I raped Nicole [Kidman] five times. Lars said, do you think you could play it as romantic comedy? I thought, Hugh Grant.

What's it like working with von Trier today versus the past proponent of the Dogma films?

He's brought back his tools. In Breaking he was a bit clumsy with his actors and people. Now he's a very good director and gets amazing performances out of actors. He doesn't have to fight their skills.

Why does he like to use newcomers?

Skill in film can be terrible. You don't want to show your tools. Lars wants to capture life. If there's something that can fuck up your performance, do it.