Dissecting how the Nymphomaniac director treats his leading men (spoiler: not nicely)
To celebrate this month's Girls Rule issue, Dazed is running a series of takeovers, kicking off today with a Stacy Martin special. With a think piece on Lars Von Trier's men, a Kaye Donachie Lightbox, Stacy's head-to-head interview with her co-star Sophie Kennedy Clark, and pieces on the satellite conducting a health check on earth and the 19th century actress that could teach us all some lessons. Keep checking our Stacy Martin Day page for more throughout the day.
There's no hype like the release of a new Lars Von Trier film. When word got out the impish Dane's latest was to be a four-hour epic called Nymphomaniac, it was clear his penchant for baiting naysayers hadn't mellowed. The advertising campaign - from orgasm-face posters to tawdry clip teasers - made it seem this could be his most divisive movie yet. But it’s not what anyone expected - and is winning wide praise. The director uses the frank, confessional debate between sex addict Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and self-proclaimed asexual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) to slyly interrogate his own rep and philosophise on sexual double standards, as snow falls outside like a fable backdrop. It's still Von Trier territory – full of dysfunctional power-play, boldly transgressive... and we're never sure if the joke's on us. Talented newcomer Stacy Martin plays Jo's younger version. In her guest edit, she took a leaf out of LVT's book and flipped the script, suggesting we take a good look at LVT's men.
Breaking the Waves wasn’t LVT’s first film, or even his first bad report-card for humanity (in hypnotist-narrated Europa, a train hurtles into a sinister post-war Europe that chews up idealists), but it did kick off the eye-roll-inducing masochism-fests that make up his Golden Hearts Trilogy. He converted to Catholicism in the '80s, and seems to have taken on its hang-ups enthusiastically. To make a spectacle of sacrifice, of course, you need a nasty world - and he's invented the worst kind of men to test his suffering saints.
So, there's Jan (Skarsgard), a Norwegian oil-rig worker that marries a childlike God fanatic and introduces her to sex. He's then paralysed in an accident, natch, and turns despair-ridden pimp, demanding she go all-out on sexual conquests to tell him about. Also imposing corrupting will on the psychologically vulnerable are Stoffer (Jens Albinus) in The Idiots, ringleader of a group for shaking up bourgeois decorum by "spassing" out in public, and Bill (David Morse) in Dancer in the Dark, whose spineless machinations destroy the life of a trusting, near-blind factory-worker (Bjork - who found the shoot so punishing she tried to eat her own cardigan).
With doc The Five Obstructions, LVT tests his suspicion perfection can't survive in a tarnishing world against someone seemingly invulnerable for a change – his suave, cigar-smoking idol Jorgen Leth. He challenges the director to remake his 1967 classic The Perfect Human with obstacles that threaten to spoil it, such as making it in the most wretched place (he chooses Bombay's red light district) - or, to bring the composed observer Leth more in touch with his flawed humanness.
"The men are shallow vehicles for the urges and self-loathing of a more complex woman to play out against"
In later films LVT's men are manipulative, but hypocritically veil this with worthy intentions, while the women viciously rebel in out-and-out, misanthropic war. In parable Dogville, Tom (Paul Bettany) aspires to be his town's moral leader, and advocates for beautiful on-the-run Grace (Nicole Kidman), who wins acceptance by doing chores. But as the townsfolk start to abuse her earnest commitment, Tom rationalises his own selfish acts - and unleashes her ire.
In Antichrist Willem Dafoe is another form of arrogant idealist - a psychiatrist convinced he can cure his wife (Gainsbourg) of her guilt-induced trauma over the death of their son, who fell from a window to the epic strains of Handel while they were distracted shagging. He forces her to confront her fears in medieval-style woods, where species brutally hunt each other. A "misogyny consultant" is mischievously listed in the credits, what with the wife researching a thesis on witch-hunts and gynocide. Whether or not she''s a witch, she brings her fear into existence through imagining it, her hubby burning her on a pyre after she loses her shit in no minor manner.
Kirsten Dunst as Justine is the core of Melancholia - another mercurially unhinged character whose depression LVT modelled on his own. It’s the night of her wedding to Michael – a handsome but nondescriptly sweet guy who struggles with her whimsical disregard, is brashly cuckolded, and is sidelined for part two. Of course, you don't need an asshole to test a lady's mettle when there's a rogue planet about to collide with Earth. Having decided the world is too evil to grieve for, Justine stays calm, while her sister (Gainsbourg) freaks out (acing the Bechdel test, incidentally, in the process).
And Nymphomanic? Again, the men – from Shia LeBeouf as a sleazily brainless office manager to Jamie Bell as a matter-of-fact bondage practitioner with a busy waiting room – are shallow vehicles for the urges and self-loathing of a more complex woman to play out against. Having subjugated monogamy and motherhood to her addiction, Joe is threateningly unbeholden to the bourgeois norms used to keep women under control. Human understanding and wisdom comforts in the greying, compassionate figure of Seligman after she's beaten. No spoilers here but... could such a man exist long in LVT 's universe without an abject twist?