Fire of My Loins

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Raw Performance in ‘Nymphomaniac’ Is Not About the Sex

While you are engineered to fixate on all that naked grunting in 'Nymphomaniac,' you might miss Charlotte Gainsbourg in the most raw and intense performance of the year.

The shocking thing about Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is that it isn’t very shocking. Never you mind, however, as there’s no changing the fact that everyone will focus on the sex. It’s a shame, because while you are biologically engineered to fixate on all that naked grunting, you might miss the most raw and intense performance of the young year. The power of Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymphomaniac is that, with her bruised pride paraded before us to see, she offers something that is far more than skin deep. The bruises on her face and elsewhere in her mishandled body help, too, but they do not make Nymphomaniac very comfortable to watch. Gainsbourg drew from deep within herself, and her honesty can be refreshing, if a little frightening, like an angel bearing bad news.

“I’ve never felt comfortable with myself,” Gainsbourg tells me as I nodded, until you realize that this is the same person who at the age of 13 sang a song called “Lemon Incest” with her father, the French iconoclast Serge Gainsbourg. Half of her cool came from him, half from her mother, the English actress Jane Birkin, which allowed her to make her film debut in the same year as “Lemon Incest” and steal the picture from none other than Catherine Deneuve in Paroles et musique. She looked a little like a boy, but more importantly, like a wise old boy, who seemed to know more about life than the adults waltzing around her. If she’s not comfortable with herself, who is?

In the span of 30 years, she’s won two César awards for the films L'Effrontée and La Bûche. She landed a starring turn as Jane Eyre, released four musical albums of songs that arrive at your door sounding, again, like a heavenly creature notifying you of your imminent downfall. After playing the vulnerable Claire in I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s theme-and-variation on the idea of Bob Dylan, Lars von Trier asked her to audition for the lead in Antichrist. Rumor is that the actress Eva Green had wanted the role, but her agents refused to release her, so Gainsbourg met von Trier for the first time.

“I didn’t think he was very attracted to me,” Gainsbourg recalls. “I didn’t think I had been very interesting in what I had to say, because he was asking a lot of questions about anxiety attacks, if I had gone through any of them in the past.” Antichrist is the story of a couple only named “She” and “He,” who were doing “It” when their toddler boy plunged off a balcony and to his death. The rest of the film chronicled her nightmarish descent into grief and her very violent renewal—the film scandalized Cannes when it opened. Antichrist came to be regarded as the first of the “Depression Trilogy” of von Trier, who suffers from the condition. Gainsbourg, despite her admitted insecurities, does not. “I felt so normal and uninteresting that I thought, OK, this will never happen.”

It did happen, and her take-no-prisoners approach (a more apt description of the film than you’d think) won her a best actress award at Cannes. In von Trier’s next entry to the trilogy, Melancholia, the depression was handed off to Kirsten Dunst, who plays a woman who breaks up her marriage on her wedding day. Gainsbourg portrays her sister, who becomes aware that a planet is hurtling toward Earth, and the two siblings face the end of the world in very different ways. Melancholia also produced a scandal at Cannes, but for another reason altogether. At the festival, von Trier, who has said that he was brought up by a Jewish dad, only to learn that his actual biological father was German, jokingly announced that he was a Nazi in an uncomfortable rant. The festival declared him persona non grata.

That was not the only joke that von Trier made at Cannes, however. He also said that his next film would be a hardcore pornography starring Dunst and Gainsbourg. “I thought he was just making fun,” Gainsbourg recalls. “And then it became true!” Voilà! Nymphomaniac.

The two-part film, the first of which opens Friday, while the second will arrive next month, is ostensibly about a woman, Joe, who has been beaten and left in an alley. Along comes Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an old bachelor who takes her in and offers her a cup of tea and a rugelach while she tells him her erotic life story. There is indeed plenty of hanky panky in the film, but there is so much else as well—take, for instance, the rugelach, and be careful of how you serve that Jewish pastry. It matters, for a man of von Trier’s muddled heritage. The erotic tale constantly diverts off track; the sex is interrupted by discourses on fly-fishing (a nymph is a type of lure, made to resemble an insect’s young form), polyphonic music, the Fibonacci sequence, and other digressions. (A disappointment: why nothing about nymphs and satyrs in mythology?)

All of which makes Nymphomaniac resemble the moral novels of the 18th century, like Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, or Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, supposedly biographical but endlessly excursive. Recall that von Trier founded the cinematic movement Dogme 95, which pledged (complete with manifestos and "vows of chastity") to make films based on the traditional values of storytelling—no wonder that von Trier latched on to the form and affects of the first English novels, even organizing the film into eight chapters. The film also draws from the classic European treatises and manuals of the 17th century, like Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, a celebration of fishing referred to at length by Seligman, and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a study of clinical depression that is less science and more literary philosophy.

It is no coincidence that von Trier draws from texts that eventually become much bigger than its supposed subject. Nymphomaniac, in other words, is about everything but sex. There is a good film here whether or not the word “sex” is used. Try, instead, lust, addiction, guilt—and, for that matter, shame, that emotion which brings pink to the skin. Look beyond skin-deep, and beyond the sensational. If there is good advice here for journalists, it might not be accidental. Is this von Trier’s idea of teaching the media a lesson after all that Nazi nonsense?

If you were to do pornography in art, this would be the way to do it, though von Trier guaranteed that we’d all gawk at the pornography and ignore the art. “Provocation is part of his tools, yes I’m sure about that,” Gainsbourg says of von Trier. “But the provocation is something quite small for me. All the controversy with the film is something small. Of course he’s having fun with it, but he’s in control of everything.”

Some worry that von Trier is too in control. Von Trier identifies with female leads, and has a habit for putting actresses through a wealth of traumatizing situations: Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Bodil Jørgensen in The Idiots, Björk in Dancer in the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Bryce Dallas Howard in Manderlay, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia—and, of course, Gainsbourg. None of them end up well, and Antichrist was even awarded an “anti-award” for misogyny by the Cannes Ecumenical Jury. The charge dismays Gainsbourg.

“For me, he’s always portraying himself into those female characters, and you can’t portray women that way without a lot of love, a lot of empathy,” she says. “I would have seen some kind of hatred, and I have never, ever seen that coming from him.” In truth, Gainsbourg loves von Trier and identifies with him, and it is easy to see why. What other director has given us so many powerful heroines as von Trier?

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But even his biggest defenders will flinch at the assaults, sexual or not, that Joe has to endure in Nymphomaniac. Luckily, Gainsbourg had no problem ceding control to von Trier.

“There’s manipulation, that’s for sure, and wanting to be manipulated is also something that I know I have,” she says, as she admitted that she has a bit of masochism in her. “But the game that we’ve been playing is something that I wouldn’t have accepted if I had been treated badly. He was always so respectful. He himself always had so much empathy for what he’s asking of me, holding my hand and being very generous.” That’s perhaps the least he can do after what he puts her through in lengthy scenes of beatings from a professional, played by Jamie Bell with a sort of boyish sadist charm. (“I didn’t want to go through that, so someone else did,” Gainsbourg says. “A girl was willing to put herself through some of the whipping. It was a fake whip.” Phew.)

Joe has a zest for life that can’t be sated, and no one really knows what to do with it—not herself and not society, which makes her somewhat of an outcast. “When you buy a tiger, you also have to feed it,” says one of Joe’s lovers (her first, actually), Jerome, played by Shia LaBeouf. (You also get to hear LaBeouf say, in an accent that I assume is English, “You should probably take off your knickers.”) The line also works as a commentary on Nymphomaniac itself. When you make a film about sex, you have to keep feeding it more and more sex. The depravity mounts. And by the end, there is even a figurative money shot. It’s an explosive one, pardon the pun. But in a last attempt to keep some distance from pornography, it is not shown. While you watch it—or, more accurately, hear it—it is important to consider it in the context of pornography, and ask who it is that, traditionally, delivers the money shot? In other words, who’s in charge, and what’s the target audience? Not men, but Joe. This is Gainsbourg’s movie, and has been all along.

The best and hardest thing about Nymphomaniac is watching the toll that sex takes on Joe. Gainsbourg is now 42, though in real life she looks not a day more than 30. Nevertheless, Joe has gone through a lot, and Gainsbourg has to look her age on screen. Recently, she made a few remarks to Marie Claire that she would consider getting cosmetic surgery because getting older on film is not something she enjoys witnessing. “I said it in a very stupid way, and suddenly you say something and it is part of your new belief,” she tells me. “The truth is, I don’t like aging at all. I don’t yet know how I’ll cope with it.” It doesn’t help that von Trier makes it a point to showcase the ugliness of life. Gainsbourg is happy to go down that road with him, to put bruises everywhere, to protrude her jaw just a little bit more, as if it’s dislocated. “You pretend that you’re not seeing yourself,” she says of her image in Nymphomaniac. “But then your face gets put on it! The focus is on that.”

The intense focus is the very power of Gainsbourg’s performances. Consider Antichrist. To hell with the charges of misogyny; the strength of the film comes from its study of a woman’s grief, one that had been compounded by guilt that the death of her child had arisen from her lust for her husband. Antichrist was the result of the unpacking of that merry baggage.

And that is the revelation about Nymphomaniac, too—it explores the guilt that arise from Joe’s desire, lust, and, yes, sex, and how it unhinges into empowerment. Most roles in movies offer so little. They are feel-good commercial seductions to “entertain.” They let viewers pretend to be somebody else, usually somebody overly attractive, somebody young. They prep viewers for a good night’s sleep, but escape rarely has anything to do with reality, and that’s why actors are called stars. For Gainsbourg, the progeny of two superstars, being cool is the last thing she needs to try to be. As Joe, Gainsbourg makes no effort to glamorize the truth, but she makes all the effort to honor the truth. Despite the ungodly amount of sex, Joe feels real. That is the most shocking thing about Nymphomaniac.