Stacy Martin at Nymphomanic's New York premiere. Photo by Patrick McMullan.
It is difficult to imagine anyone other than lithe, Parisian beauty Stacy Martin playing a younger Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac, but the former model almost didn't get the part. Von Trier saw her tapes, but wanted to pass on her, recalls the 23-year-old actress. Though Nymphomaniac is Martin's first film, the director's hesitation wasn't because of Martin's lack of experience -- it was because she reminded him too much of Gainsbourg.
For most filmmakers, aesthetic continuity would be a positive but not for the controversial director, who is used to pushing the boundaries of what we're familiar with on-screen. "He told me, 'I would've cast someone who looked completely different,'" Martin explains. "He wanted to make a portrait of a nymphomaniac. It didn't have to be this particular woman; it could be more of a universal thing. Well, I guess I messed that up." Although Martin was born in Paris, she now lives in London, and delivers self-deprecating quips like that with a distinctly British, deadpan sense of humor.
Martin herself nearly blew off the initial casting call, thinking it was another routine model casting. "My modeling agency asked me to go to this fashion casting and I said, 'Oh I've got class, you know, I really want to do acting now. I don't want to miss class for a casting.' And they said, 'You can go during your lunch break. If you go, you'll get this amount of money if you get it - which means you can do more acting classes!' So I reluctantly dragged my feet to wherever it was. It turned out that it was Des Hamilton doing the casting and he was casting for Lars' film." Thanks to the casting director, who convinced Von Trier to meet Martin in person after viewing her audition tapes, Martin went on to land a supporting role in one of the most talked-about films this year.
By now, it's no secret that Nymphomaniac's two-part, four hour running-time is packed with as many sex scenes as the film can hold. For what feels like an actual lifetime, we follow the anti-heroine Joe evolve from a young nymph to a middle-aged sex addict. For most of part one we watch "Young Joe," portrayed by Martin, naked in various positions with various men, including Shia LaBeouf. The myth that the actors "performed their own stunts" has been debunked (the film employs porn doubles for all the actors) and like many viewers and outspoken critics of the film, Martin is also tired of all the sex talk. On the subject of her sex scenes with LaBeouf, Martin compares them to the mundane routine of grocery shopping. "For me, it felt very mechanical, the sex," says Martin. "Especially filming it. It was very '1, 2, 3 -- OK, next position.' But that's what's great as well: Sometimes sex is quite mathematical. [Von Trier] takes all the romantic aspects of it out, although it can be very romantic -- and it can be a very beautiful thing - but he shows that it's sex and it's something that's part of us, part of our nature. The sex scenes are just part of the film, rather than being shocking. It's not erotic at all."
Martin as Young Joe in Nymphomaniac
Martin might be tired of discussing the details of her intimate on-screen moments with Mr. LaBeouf, but she has nothing but love for the controversial actor, who recently announced his retirement from public life. "He has this sort of energy. I don't know if it's American, or if it's just him, but he lifts everything up. You actually get to play. He's there, immediately, so all you have to do is react to what he's doing. As an actor that's a gift."
When sitting down to talk to Martin about the film, I was surprised by her enthusiastic presence. As Young Joe, Martin is meek and dead-eyed. Her thin body is quiet and demands nothing of the camera. Although it may be tempting to view Nymphomaniac as a celebration of female sexuality, Von Trier's gaze erases any chances of the film being perceived as feminist. Joe, along with her childhood friend B, don their "fuck me now" outfits to seduce men on trains and ritually chant in praise of the vulva. "Young Joe" may have started her formative years in an awesome, cult-ish womanist girl gang but in the hands of Von Trier, she's nothing more than a schoolgirl fantasy.
In an interview with Dazed and Confused magazine, Martin's co-star Sophie Kennedy Clark (B) defines Nymphomaniac as part of the sexual revolution for women in film, along with Lovelace and Blue Is the Warmest Color. Asked if she thinks the film's portrayal of sex is empowering, Martin agrees. "At the same time I don't want to put too much pressure on 'I'm a woman' or 'I'm a feminist,'" says Martin. "Yes, I'm a woman. So? Maybe that's feminist in its own way but for me to have the freedom to say, 'This is my body and I'm going to do what I want with it and I also have my limits,' that's me as a human being. I see the film more as that." For Martin, labeling herself a feminist is too limiting. "If you start using the word 'feminist,' like people use the word with Lars -- 'misogynist' -- you put people in boxes," she says.
As always, the intentions of the auteur are unclear. But ultimately, who can disagree with Martin when she looks at you with wide eyes and says, "Lars' movies are universal. They're not just about a woman; they're not just about a man. They're about relationships. They're about life. They're about things that fuck up. They're about good and evil - because we have all of that in ourselves. I don't want to pinpoint it to one thing because he's so grand."
Like Martin implies, between the montages of penises and Shia Labeouf's questionable British accent, the message of the film is a moral one. For the director of the depression trilogy, Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), and now Nymphomaniac, the world is unfeeling, its inhabitants are victims of it, and Von Trier's women are merely metaphors.