Charlotte and Stacy talk about sex and “Nymphomaniac”

ImageWhen an esteemed director refers to the movie he’s about to make as a “porn film,” he creates an interesting dilemma for those he’d like to cast.

“I was a bit, oh, hesitant,” admits Charlotte Gainsbourg, star of Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” parts I and II. The 42 year-old Anglo-French actress is no stranger to Von Trier controversy, having been in his “Antichrist” as well as “Melancholia.” But on hearing the subject matter of the new film and his flippant description of it — Von Trier is famous for his flippancy — she could have been forgiven for letting her cell phone go straight to voice mail.

“But I admire Lars very much,” she says.

So she read the outline of a script, the story of a self-loathing nymphomaniac who tells her sad history to a kindly stranger (Stellan Skarsgard) who rescues her from the gutter. And Gainsbourg was sold.

“It wasn’t going to be a porn film at all,” she says. She was struck by “what Lars put of himself in the characters, how honest he was.” And he educated her on the very illness the film is about.

“For me, nymphomania was, very stupidly I must say, this life of sexual pleasure — having sex all the time,” says Gainsbourg, best known for “21 Grams” and “Jane Eyre.” “Learning about its true nature, how sad it is, was eye-opening.”

She took the job. Actress-model Stacy Martin, a film neophyte, was cast as the younger version of Gainsbourg’s narrator character, “Joe,” the young woman having all the sex – explicit sex.

“I knew what the film was,” Martin, 23, says. “Before shooting, there this whole frenzy around it, and then press was all wanting to know ‘Who’s having sex with whom?’ Hilarious!”

The “Who’s having sex with whom” stuff spun around the romantic lead in the cast, American actor Shia LaBeouf. With Von Trier ready to cross ratings boundaries in the film’s depiction of intercourse, there’d be little left to the imagination in the clenches. Martin and LaBeouf would be nude and their copulation would be “Deep Throat” real. Or seem that way.

“We’d never call those (sex scenes) pleasant,” Martin says. “They were fine. Don’t get me wrong. We talked SO MUCH about them, days of this. ‘How would we do this? Should we use prosthetics?’ And positions and camera angles and all that.

Making the film, Gainsbourg focused on the character’s journey through “a life of suffering, the whole frustration of wanting something (love, romantic sex) she never can have.”

And Martin?

“At some point, you just want to get ON with it. It’s all technical and mechanical and professional and that makes it less tense than it would be while you’re there with no clothes. A very reassuring way to approach those scenes. You don’t want to feel used.”

Ask the actresses from last year’s equally explicit lesbian romance “Blue is the Warmest Color” about that. But with “Nymphomaniac,” there was one bit of insurance the actors leaned on more than others.

“At some point in those scenes, we go, ‘OK, time to get the porn doubles in!'” Martin says with a laugh. So no, they say. It’s not “really” them. Martin kept laughing all the way through the film’s reception at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where catcalls did not quite drown out the cheers, but came close.

“They had no idea what was coming their way,” Martin says. “And when it was finished, there was another frenzy, because it was completely unexpected.”

Gainsbourg admits to having her second wave of doubts after shooting the movie and before it premiered. She’d made this very long, very sexually explicit film — Von Trier’s first cut was five and a half hours, and he ended up releasing it in two halves. Many scenes, and not just the flashbacks of Gainsbourg’s character as a libidinous teen and young adult, were “quite extreme” (Gainsbourg’s sex scenes are in “Part II”). And the stars didn’t know just what Von Trier would be showing to the public.

“It had gone in all sorts of directions, sexually,” Gainsbourg says. “I knew the scenes I had done and how extreme the film was going to be, I was even more nervous. And it took him a very long time to edit… Through that time, not seeing what he was doing to shape this — I was thinking, ‘What have I done? What IS this going to be like?'”

But Gainsbourg has been through the Von Trier shock cycle before, with his provocative “Antichrist.” She tempered her fears with that memory and found herself relieved when the finished film premiered.

“The extremeness of it was underlined with a lot of beauty,” she says. “And humor.”

The reviews were mostly kind, some enthusiastic, many of the “both dumber and more entertaining than anyone had a right to expect” (David Edelstein, New York Magazine). And the stars’ reaction?

“I still have nothing but admiration for Lars” Gainsbourg says.

Martin, whose career begins with this two-part cause celebre, is even more content with the finished film.

“To sort of launch yourself into this world by working with one of your favorite directors? I could retire very happily having just done this.”

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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