(out of 5)
Stellan Skarsgård finds a beaten and bloodied Charlotte Gainsbourg lying in an alleyway, takes her home, gives her tea and asks her to tell him why she ended up in such a dejected state, depressed and unwilling to accept medical assistance. She tells him that she is an evil woman who deserves her fate, delving into her past and relating her tales of pursuing sexual intercourse with countless numbers of men since puberty in an effort to fill a deep longing that, like any true addict, she is unable to quench. Love, she says, is just lust with jealousy added, and she has resisted its pull while at the same time putting herself into torrid situations that have seen her enjoying the company of as many as ten men a night (and if you can believe that this is even possible, you will enjoy the ridiculousness that follows). Director Lars von Trier pushes the envelope of propriety and sense with this extravagantly enjoyable character study, this first half of which travels the journey of Gainsbourg’s adolescence (played in flashback by a bold Stacy Martin) whose chapter stops connect sexual exploration with human interests that Skarsgard unveils: fly fishing, Fibonacci number sequences, classical art and even traditional Jewish pastries. The two narrators serve as contradictory sides of von Trier’s own struggles with depression and the guilt of hedonism in a guilty world, and some will easily find it contentious that the male side is the one that argues for wisdom and self-empowerment while the female tows the usual line of von Trier’s feminine psyches, the willingness to be brutalized and destroyed as an inescapable outcome to life’s contradictions. The female side is also the captivatingly vulnerable and sensitively nuanced viewpoint, however, and despite some raucously detailed bad behavior (that includes far more of Shia LaBeouf than you ever wanted to see) the most explosive parts of the film are rarely those you’d expect: fetishizing cake forks and expounding on the wonder of ash trees come across as far more eccentric than long sequences of promiscuous escapades on trains or graphic close-ups of oral sex. Then there are the touches of madness, such as Uma Thurman‘s scene as a jilted wife with a hilariously fractured sense of emotional security, that bring the overwhelmingly funny exercise in provocation to its apex. The combination of high-minded cultural references and exposed genitalia provide the humorous rebellion that von Trier does best, wisely applying his enfant terrible personality to his work in ways that work far better than his attempts to put it across in person (perhaps I’m thinking of an infamous Cannes press conference and some poorly gauged Nazi jokes). It’s also a four-hour movie whose binary split gives the audience a chance for a do-over: if you’re not entranced by Volume I, there’s little chance you’ll want to continue, but if you enjoy delving into the director’s addled brain (and he cannot really cover his own self portrait of nuttiness by placing it in the character of a gorgeous woman), you’ll have a wonderful time indulging in the madness.
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Screenplay by Lars von Trier
Cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro
Produced by Louise Vesth
Production Design by Simone Grau
Costume Design by Manon Rasmussen