Today I was painting a door and I had to fill in all the holes. I was bending down and asked my sister “have I missed any?” and she went “there’s one” and pointed at my butt. I’ve never felt so violated in my life
Early in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Young Joe (Stacy Martin) coos these words to one of the countless men she has sex with during the two part, 241-minute opus of depravity. While what she’s saying carries a clear erotic charge, her bluntly literal instructions aren’t a come-on so much as a desperate plea for fulfillment. As Joe relates her life story to the overeager stranger Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who found her lying in an alley near his home, what was first intended as a simple request for comprehensive penetration evolves into a tragic refrain, with the unsubtle subtext that might be expected from a filmmaker who has the word “fuck” tattooed across his right-hand knuckles. Joe is suffering from an incurable sense of incompletion. Loneliness, she tells Seligman, has been her constant companion. That simple admission confirms Nymphomaniac’s role for von Trier—this is the film that binds his work together. These are his confessions.
A serial self-mythologizer whose gifts for inflating his own legend are on par with Werner Herzog’s, von Trier has never wasted an opportunity to build his brand. His career has been defined by cultish doctrines, informal trilogies, priceless soundbites, and obvious periods of hero worship. (Has there ever been a less-needed title card than the one dedicating Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky?) His techniques insist that he’s inextricable from his films, and always has been. He starred in 1987’s Epidemic (as a version of himself), awarded himself a cameo as a Holocaust survivor in 1991’s Europa, then let his increasing notoriety take over. Audiences no longer have to see von Trier in his films to see von Trier in his films.