Lars Von Trier’s female characters in ‘Nymphomaniac’ may be messed up, but at least they’re there


Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is in a Lars von Trier movie, so things get rough for her. (Magnolia Pictures)

Maybe Lars von Trier is a hit at parties, bringing light and whimsy and laughter wherever he goes. Maybe he brings a nice bottle of wine and asks for the recipe for your mini-quiches and follows up with a thank-you note, or at least tags you in his Facebook status about what a great time he had. Judging by his movies, though, probably not.

Von Trier is brilliant (his last film, “Melancholia,” still sticks with me) but he is bleak (I never ever ever want to see “Melancholia” again).

That streak continues with “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1,” out Friday. In it, a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) gets the crap beaten out of her for as-yet-unknown reasons; a man (Stellan Skarsgard) brings her to his apartment, where she tells him about her extensive sexual history. Which we, the audience, also see. In graphic detail.

What’s odd about the sex scenes is that they are incredibly explicit without being the least bit erotic. Joe doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy sex, but women in von Trier’s movies rarely enjoy anything.

Accusations of misogyny swirl around the Danish director every time he makes a movie. Apparently he’s incredibly tough on his actors, males and females equally, from what I’ve read. Often, though, the accusations stem from the fact that the women portrayed in von Trier’s films — usually the central characters — are really messed up.

Right now I can turn my head and see the posters of all nine films that were nominated for the best picture Oscar last year. There are 11 men shown, if you don’t count the stockbrokers in the background of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” There are four women, if you don’t count the hookers in the background of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” That concerns me more than von Trier’s films.

Yes, his female characters are often deeply troubled and immensely flawed — which means they’re like actual real women (granted, many of them are extreme examples). That’s good; women shouldn’t have to be likable to get top billing in a movie. Von Trier’s women are tough to watch, but at least they’re there.

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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