Von Trier pushes obsession with reality into sexual domain

  • The release of a chaste but tense clip from Nymphomaniac, due out at the end of December, has tongues wagging on-line
  • True to form, director Lars von Trier has stuck as closely as possible to reality
  • Certain predecessors pushed the envelope even further way before he came along

Lars von Trier is back. The controversial director has just published a new, slightly disturbing clip online from his upcoming movie Nymphomaniac. In the extract Shia LaBeouf pretends that the office elevator has broken down so that he can be alone with Joe, (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the central character of a two-part film recounting the sexual history of a woman from birth to age 50. In addition to the short clip is the accompanying photo in which LaBeouf can be seen having energetic sex with Stacy Martin that has the Internet in a bit of a flap.

Yet again, the Danish director, winner of the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival with Dancer in the Dark in 2000, finds himself fulfilling the role of film industry agitator. He had originally imposed strict cinematic rules on himself with his friend and co-founder of the avant-garde filmmaking movement Dogme95, Thomas Vinterberg, director of The Celebration. Both men have since abandoned them.

Von Trier’s movies are capable of seducing just as easily as offending. The one thing they do have in common, however, is their constant mission to bring out the truth in characters. This obsession with reality is pushed to the limit by the director which frequently incurs the wrath of censors. Cinemagoers who are more accustomed to being entertained, rather than unnerved, are often left feeling ill at ease although it is possible to gain enjoyment from his work.

Viewed as somewhat of a pioneer, von Trier is not the first, however, to produce a mainstream movie featuring real sex scenes. In the Realm of the Senses, by Nagisa Oshima, was regarded as a classic by critics. It included bondage scenes and sadomasochistic acts by tying up a partner. All this filmed against a backdrop of delightful Japanese countryside. It came out in 1976.

For actors, filming these types of scenes can sometimes be a grueling experience. Maria Schneider was deeply affected by the infamous sodomy scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s renowned Last Tango in Paris (1972). Although the action was simulated, she admitted later that Marlon Brando’s violent approach had provoked real tears.

Charlotte Gainsbourg has had similarly disturbing experiences while filming with von Trier, but that has not prevented her from signing up again. The incendiary director offered her work during a difficult period in her life. The eventual upshot was a Best Actress award at Cannes in 2009 for her role in Antichrist. It was by all accounts a demanding shoot. The actress described it as “an extreme adventure that I won’t be in a hurry to repeat, and might not ever repeat.” In the film, she had to masturbate in front of the cameras and take part in a scene involving female genital mutilation. It was combination of porn and gore for Gainsbourg during a period in which she was suffering from severe depression. Just before the Nymphomaniac shoot commenced in Germany, the Anglo-French actress admitted that she was “still a little frightened.”

There appears to be less concern among the male members of the cast. Shia LaBeouf announced proudly that it was his intention to perform in the sex scenes himself: “The script made it clear that the sexual acts were not going to be simulated. Everything’s going to be real.” Audiences will be presented with “real” porn, acted out by professionals. The actors’ faces will apparently be added in at the post-production stage.

Because of this bold choice, and to avoid an outright ban from theaters across the world, two versions of the movie were filmed following in the footsteps of Last Tango in Paris. There will be a “soft” version with blurred images which will be able to be shown in any cinema, on television and a truly “hardcore” version, where nothing will be left to the imagination.

French poet Jean Cocteau wrote last century that “Tact in audacity is knowing how far you can go without going too far.” As far as Lars von Trier is concerned, he appears to have already gone that little bit too far.



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