Lars von Trier, the terribly talented Danish provocateur, is quite a character. The filmmaker behind awe-inspiring films like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Melancholia—to name a few—had, three years back, taken a vow of public silence after he was ripped to shreds in the press, and even questioned by Danish police, for remarks he made at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. There, von Trier, in a failed attempt at stand-up comedy, said, “I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker… I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him.” Later, he declared jokingly, “I am a Nazi.” The Cannes Film Festival declared him “persona non grata,” effectively banning von Trier from the Côte d'Azur fest, and von Trier later issued a statement saying he wasn’t anti-Semitic or a Nazi. Later, he said he’d “decided from this day forth to refrain from all public statements and interviews.”
On Monday afternoon at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, von Trier (sort of) broke his silence. The occasion was a press conference where his collaborators—star Stellan Skarsgard, story supervisors Jenle Hallund and Vinca Wiedemann, and longtime producer Louise Vesth—discussed the uncut, five-and-a-half hour version of Nymphomaniac.
Nymphomaniac, which was released in two parts (or “volumes”) stateside, is a psychosexual odyssey centering on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-described nymphomaniac who’s discovered beaten to within an inch of her life by Seligman (Skarsgard). He takes her in, and Joe tells him her story, flashing back to her sexual awakening, dozens of sexual conquests—three-ways, BDSM, you name it—and the one man, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), who won her heart.
It wasn’t like most press conferences. You see, von Trier still won’t speak directly to the press. So, his frequent star and good pal Skarsgard was given three “lifelines”—or questions he could kick over to von Trier, who was broadcast in via iPad. Skarsgard would then phone von Trier up, the two would chat in Danish, and Skarsgard would regurgitate the filmmaker’s answers.
But first, Skarsgard discussed how he came onboard Nymphomaniac. “[Von Trier] called me a year before we started and said, ‘Stellan, my next film will be a porno film and I’d like you to play the male lead… but you will not get to fuck. But you will show your dick at the end, and it will be very floppy.’ Who can resist that invitation?”
The Swedish actor also addressed claims that von Trier was a misogynist because of the pains he inflicts on his female characters on film. According to Skarsgard, these critics are missing the point. “Some reviews have not quite understood it and think that Lars is a misogynist and that he doesn’t like women, but he’s a director that writes the best roles for women in the world, and he really likes them. I can vouch for that. There have been some misunderstandings.”
Now, for Mr. von Trier. The first question kicked over to him was what it’s like to work with Skarsgard, to which Skarsgard relayed, “Lars says it’s not really working together. Throughout the years, he’s been breaking me down, and he says that I function very well now.”
The second “lifeline” was what von Trier had learned about female sexuality by making Nymphomaniac. Skarsgard cheekily said, “I know a little bit about female sexuality, but it’s still a mystery. On the other hand, my own sexuality is a mystery.” Then, he phoned his buddy von Trier, who just repeatedly sighed for about twenty seconds—Skarsgard apologized on behalf of von Trier—before the following message was passed on: “He says, ‘Have I learned anything about women? No. I know everything about women.”
The third and final “lifeline” asked whether von Trier related to his female protagonists as well as his male ones. “Everything that is masochistic in the film is me,” said von Trier (via Skarsgard). “The women, to a certain extent, is some of [von Trier], but every time something masochistic is shown, it’s [von Trier].”
After the whole “lifeline” shtick was up, von Trier disappeared from iPad view, and Skarsgard was asked about the filmmaker’s reputation for being “difficult” to work with—an assertion that he swiftly denied.
“It all comes from the difficulties of working with Bjork on Dancer in the Dark,” said Skarsgard. “But that was two control freaks, and you should never have two control freaks on a film set. They both wanted to make their film, and that doesn’t work. But other than that, he’s the sweetest, loveliest man to work with.”
Things wrapped up with a vague—albeit intriguing—announcement by Louise Vesth, von Trier’s producer.
“I’m happy to announce that the next Lars von Trier project will be a TV series in the English language,” she said. “He has a really, really good idea which I cannot tell more about right now. He wants a huge cast, and from what I heard, it will be something you’ve never seen before, and you definitely will never see again.”