Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac
For a project that initially began as a joke—or so thought Charlotte Gainsbourg—Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac Volume I and Volume II easily became some of the most anticipated foreign films of the year. Von Trier first hinted at Nymphomaniac at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival during a hair-raising press conference for his previous film, Melancholia, saying, “We had fun doing this film, but I would like to talk about my next film which is—as Kirsten insisted—is going to be a porn film. Kirsten and Charlotte want a really hardcore film, and I'm going to do my best.” Kirsten Dunst, who starred alongside Gainsbourg in Melancholia, doesn't appear in Nymphomaniac, but Gainsbourg does, making the two-part feature the third von Trier project of her career.
Gainsbourg and co-star Stacy Martin take turns at playing the older and younger Joe, a self-described nymphomaniac (she doesn't go for the more P.C. “sex addict” label). In the first installment, Joe (Gainsbourg) is helped by a kindly man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), after he finds her injured on a dark street. At his home, Joe relates her travails as a sexualized youngster, an adolescent, and eventually a young adult. Volume I is dominated by Stacy Martin as Joe, with only occasional glimpses of Gainsbourg speaking with Seligman. Volume II is where Gainsbourg comes into the role of Joe in full throttle. Where Volume I is peppered in fairly equal measure with dark humor and just plain darkness, Volume II veers more decidedly on the macabre. Joe's sexual addiction wreaks havoc on her marriage and her relationship with her young son. Joe must find sexual satisfaction away from her husband (Shia LaBeouf), finding her in the company of a host of men, including a sadist, played unnervingly (and somewhat humorously) by Jamie Bell.
Gainsbourg sat down with a small group of journalists, including FilmLinc Daily, ahead of the rollout of Volume I last month. The Anglo-French actress spoke of her character's struggle, both internal as well as external, including the hypocritical way society treats sex addiction when it comes to men vs. women. And of course, Lars von Trier was a major topic. Gainsbourg explained how she believes he knows her well, though she questions how well she understands the controversial Danish director even as she's become a frequent presence of his films. In Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Volume II, she knows she's playing him—or at least an aspect of him.
Joe (Gainsbourg) speaking with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) in Nymphomaniac
What do you think your character believes about her addiction? Some think it's a disease and others think it's an excuse for bad behavior.
I think she wants to take the blame. Throughout the film she's trying to expose her bad behavior and to convince Seligman that she's an offense and responsible for all the suffering she's going through. But at the same time, during the chapter where she goes through the addiction therapy, she comes out of it saying how proud she is of being a sex addict and making fun of all the group therapy that she's been forced into. I think she's a very proud and stubborn woman, but at the same time I don't have much to say about her sex addiction. Of course she's going through all the frustration and appetite she's experiencing because she's not able to have enough sex.
The film for me is about a woman and the voyage she's making to know about herself and what she's saying about society and not being able to live in this society and wanting to take the blame—but there's love and a lot of subjects there too that are not directly related to the nymphomania.
What did you think about the character the first time you read it and how did you work with Lars to become Joe?
It started with a joke in Cannes with him saying, “My next film is going to be a porn film.” At that moment, I didn't know what to think of it. But then afterward he sent me a synopsis that was very close to what has now become the film. It was divided into chapters and already there's this conversation going throughout with Seligman and having two very opposite characters. So I knew the subject of the film. Lars sent me this huge script and I was very attracted to it. I didn't know all the digressions Seligman was going on about or all the other parts. I was very attracted to the character even though she's very far from me. She's very negative about society. I don't feel close to what she says but at the same time I feel a lot of empathy for her. She touches me. And at the end she has made a voyage and copes with herself and there's a real understanding of who she is by the end of the film. But yeah, she touches me a lot.
Would it be fair to say you've become von Trier's muse?
I'd love to be a muse for him. I know he puts himself into all the characters I've played, though in Melancholia I think he was putting himself much more into Kirsten's character. But in Antichrist and in this one, I definitely think I was playing him. Seligman too is a different aspect of him, which make the conversations so rich having two opposite minds together. But I don't know why me in particular. I don't know if he knows anything about my background. For Antichrist, he picked me because another actress had dropped out and I thought it was a great chance. The character was called “She,” so it was very anonymous. Of course I've gotten to know him, but he's still very mysterious today. I think he knows everything about me, but I don't know much about him. He touches me a lot. There's a lovely friendship that's happened now of course. I can't explain what he knows of me though and why he chose me.
These three characters you've played for him, what sets them apart for you creatively?
The characters go so far into suffering and depression. I know people think Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac are a trilogy, but I don't see that. Depression was important in the first two films, but I don't see that in this one. I can see that he reveals much of himself and he's very honest in revealing that in his work. For Antichrist I hadn't gone through any anxiety attacks, but by just being there, he showed me that anxiety. It was me mimicking him. It's imitation. So in that sense I could see I was portraying him. In Melancholia, it was Kirsten's part to play the depression. In this film, it was very easy to see that every subject he was setting up had two characters in opposition, but were both him at the same time.
Why do you think he's choosing to portray himself as women?
That I don't know. Maybe he finds it more interesting. People say he's misogynistic. I don't see how it's possible because of my belief he's portraying himself. But I don't know why he puts women out there more than men. But I find this story more interesting because it's a woman. Like what she says at the end of the film, “If the attitude of the nymphomaniac was a man, it would be much more acceptable.” I think it's much more interesting to have a woman play that sexual appetite than a man. We've seen that all the time.
There could be different interpretations of what Joe does on a moral level. Do you think Joe loves herself?
No, I think there's a lot of self-loathing, and I think she puts herself into a state of suffering, but she wants to take the blame and feel responsible and persuade Seligman that she's used men as tools. She has a lot of weaknesses and that's what I find touching. She has this shield that she hates love as much as she says she does. You can feel she has this very stubborn streak and is very reactionary. By the end of the film I believe she accepts herself and has made a journey into accepting her weaknesses.
I like the fact that you don't know if she's telling the truth or not or just making a joke of some of the situations. She's telling her story, which is very much against [Seligman's] belief system. It was interesting to play those scenes with Seligman and be completely different, especially in Volume II. The acting was so very different from the storytelling. It was interesting to explore both experiences in such different ways. A lot of it was a complete surprise when I saw the film because a lot of what Lars von Trier does, I don't have much idea about.[Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Nymphomaniac: Volume II are playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through Thursday.]