Lars von Trier is in many ways the central casting version of an international art house filmmaker. Or maybe a "Saturday Night Live" parody played straight. Often giving himself the role of the provocateur, Von Trier makes films that dare to examine the trickier corners of the human condition — grief, love, lust and their intersections — and there is without question something bold in his desire and ability for confrontation.
Yet as he has became known to many people for his news conference pranksterism instead of his actual filmmaking, it has seemed over the last few years that he has gone a bit off the rails, perhaps losing himself to his own self-created persona as the most terrible of enfants terribles. It had become something of a spectator sport for Von Trier to face off against an often hostile, baiting international press corps with each new film and bait them right back.
Though the Cannes Film Festival has been the site of many of his biggest successes, including winning the festival's top prize with 2000's "Dancer in the Dark," it was also the location of a disastrous 2011 appearance that got him officially declared persona non grata and inspired him to take a vow of media silence. The films in their extremities flirt with the ridiculous, and Von Trier's willingness to play the fool has had the residual effect of making his films themselves seem to some foolish and calculated.
It is as if he is challenging us to take him seriously while also daring us not to.
With the release of the second part of "Nymphomaniac" — the title alone seems another semi-serious jab — the film can be understood both as a signal for where Von Trier, 57, is at now and a self-examination of the broader scope of his career. In the three films he has now made starring actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, it seems the filmmaker has been attempting to openly delve into personal issues and bare himself to audiences in ways he has never dared before.
He was quite open that before making 2009's "Antichrist" he had suffered from a deep depression and was unsure even of his abilities to complete the film. "Melancholia" in 2011 seemed to further explore his own emotional and mental state, using the end of the world as a lens through which to magnify and closely examine feelings of hopelessness and spiritual malaise.
The Danish-born and -based Von Trier is widely known for his role as an architect of the '90s filmmaking style known as Dogme 95, which laid the foundations for the early aesthetics of digital cinema. From there Von Trier has moved on to continually fuse emotionally intimate and sensitive storytelling and formally audacious filmmaking.
Now with "Nymphomaniac," released in two parts, he further questions both himself and his audience, asking what we want from cinema and what cinema is capable of giving us back.
Joe (Gainsbourg) is taken in by a loner (Stellan Skarsgård), to whom she gives a detailed recounting of her life through her sexual misadventures. The first half had a lighter, slightly ironic tone; the second maintains a sense of distance but also goes to much darker places. Vol. 2 punches where Vol. 1 slapped. Joe's explanations of how she placed herself into charged and dangerous situations force viewers, as with Skarsgård's character in the story, to confront their own prejudices and preconceptions.
For a project that uses real porn performers throughout, sometimes digitally melded with the actors, both films feel at a remove, intellectual experiences more than emotional ones. While depicting the sex scenes in such a way as to make them mostly un-erotic, there are still moments that may catch a viewer off-guard for their intensity.
Both volumes of "Nymphomaniac" are peppered with references to Von Trier's other films. Red pleather hot pants from "Breaking the Waves," an onscreen reunion of Gainsbourg with actor Willem Dafoe — they played a tortured and torturing couple in "Antichrist" — as well as an echo of that film's scene of a young baby in dangerous peril make the film seem a kind of catalog of sorts. (Sadly, the talking fox from "Antichrist" does not reappear.)
Even the pairing of Gainsbourg with Skarsgård, the male lead of Von Trier's breakthrough "Breaking the Waves," seems to set up "Nymphomaniac" in some way as Von Trier taking stock, attempting to divide up and look over of his career as a way to find a path forward.
The man accuses Joe of telling him what she thinks he wants to hear or making things up, her years as an accomplished seducer making her finely attuned to reading a situation. She eventually chastises him for repeatedly interrupting her and his continued streak of what is often called on the modern Internet "mansplaining," a man telling a woman about something she doesn't need explained to her. In this case, herself.
In one light, the conversations between Gainsbourg and Skarsgård may be Von Trier grappling with himself, casting the actors as opposing sides of the arguments going on in his head. Should a sense of decorum or political correctness censor the more freewheeling aspects of his creative brain? How long can one flirt with darkness before falling into the void? Is there a difference between thinking a thought, talking about it and putting it into action?
With Von Trier no longer, at least for now, giving interviews to explain himself or provide context, the films must speak for themselves more than ever. Before his recent silence, I had spoken to Von Trier on a number of occasions and always found him to be playful, pleasant and insightful regarding his own intentions and work, with a startling honesty as to what he felt did and didn't work within his own films. This only puts an even greater distance, for me, between the difficult rabble-rouser often portrayed in the press and the inquisitive filmmaker-as-seeker I felt I knew through his work.
At one point in Volume 2 there is a quick cut-away to a tableau of Joe firebombing a luxury car in front of a stately home as the Talking Heads song "Burning Down the House" startlingly blasts on the soundtrack. Sort of a summation, something of a slate-clearing, what the "Nymphomaniac" project may represent most of all is Lars von Trier burning down his own house, clearing a path to get out of his own way.
Provocative in every sense of the word, stirring the loins, the head and the heart, the cinema of Lars Von Trier is not to be dismissed. And that's no joke.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun