– by David Morgan-Brown
With a title like that, along with writer/director Lars von Trier at the helm of this hard-R feature, this film should’ve been far more head turning than anyone could have dared imagine. Ultimately this film is a messy concoction of misanthropic, emotional torture porn, that this auteur filmmaker has become well known for. Moments of brilliantly produced cinema (if sometimes overly-showey) will provoke some extreme emotional and visceral reactions from even the toughest of cinema-goers. They are clumsily rendered in this meandering four-hour character study, proving to be explicit not only in its sexual display, but also in how much it wears its themes on its sleeves.
The film’s way of presenting this series of sexual encounters is through the framing narrative of our leading character Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg.) Lying in a bed recounting her upbringing of sexuality to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård,) he takes her into his home after finding her brutally beaten and left for dead in a back-alley. It’s a very static and literal way of presenting this story. The conversation between these two characters is often ludicrously arch and meta. After one particularly tenuous comment from Seligman after hearing of one of Joe’s tales, she responds, “that may’ve been your worst digression so far” – unfortunately, this self-awareness doesn’t assuage the awkwardness of the dialogue.
Fortunately, the episodes of her story (appropriately broken up into chapters) are less wooden and offer up the real meat of the film. The emotional and physical sado-masochism is uncomfortable to sit through, but why else would you watch a von Trier film? He offers up here whatever it is that makes him appealing – it’s not a hand-holding experience, it instigates riveting discussions, it pushes boundaries and it’s fun to watch (if you have a warped view of what fun is). Yet, this is a clumsy effort from the Danish enfant terrible, a blender of ideas turned on without the top on. Despite each of these chapters and the narrative that runs through them, this lengthy two-film time adds up to not very much. There are plenty of interesting and provoking moments in this film; it’s just not crafted as concisely as it deserves to be.