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But now he has sprung back from the apocalypse to create the fictional history of an insatiable woman. And a personal renewal devoted to that subject raises complicated issues. He takes her to his flat, gives her tea, and gently asks to hear her story. Her manner is intensely serious, her face unsmiling, her mode of speech self-condemning. If you sum up her past as a series of would-be realistic events, they immediately collapse into absurdity.
Who is Joe? She has little history except for her erotic history, little temperament apart from undifferentiated lust. Initially happy with him—she gives birth to his son—she nevertheless announces, in despair, that she has lost any sensation of sexual pleasure. Then, ever more desperate, she flings herself into masochistic rituals with a professional sadist Jamie Bellwhich is not at all comical—the sessions are re-created in excruciating detail.
Well, stomach this. Millet, recording her own experience, is an exhibitionist and a boaster and, unfortunately, not much of a writer. Von Trier is a filmmaker who uses his art to dramatize not the real world but extreme fantasy. Male or female fantasy?
Both, perhaps. In Volume II, von Trier extends the notion of ungovernable female desire as social rebellion; he even morphs into a nineteen-seventies kind of radical feminist. She looks like an unhappy child who has been playing in the mud. However badly battered, her Joe is articulate and precise—overprecise, it feels at first, but it becomes clear that the act of telling, from a distance, as a way of exercising control, is as much the point as the tale itself. When the movie switches to the past, however, Joe is a blank. The twenty-three-year-old model who plays her in those scenes, Stacy Martin, has the same long jaw and slender form as Gainsbourg, and, in an early scene on a train, she flashes an engagingly naughty grin as Joe services a solid bourgeois in a first-class compartment.
And Shia LaBeouf, struggling with a vaguely conceived part, looks more unformed than ever; his features are almost fetal. Her only true relationship is with Seligman, who offers her release by listening to her. He murmurs that Joe suffers from a mistaken sense of sin, that she was just a girl having adventures, giving herself and other people pleasure.
Von Trier has become a virtuoso of baroque elucidation and quasi-absurdist play. She takes a turn at exegesis herself. Von Trier links his hungry woman to philosophical ideas, mathematics, digressions of all sorts.
Sex, it turns out, is meaningless without interpretation. The character has only one way of experiencing her life; the director has many ways of telling it. The repeated scene of Joe walking in the woods with her adored father Christian Slater is poetic in a flossy, boring way.
Von Trier even seems to be pranking the audience. But the director has at last created a genuine scandal—a provocation worth talking about.
David Denby is a staff writer at The New Yorker. e-mail address.Aged nymphomaniac wanted
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The Story of Joe