Lars von Trier’s wild, sprawling latest is an orgy of the sublime and the ridiculous. It’s the story of the self-destructive sex life of a woman named Joe, seen in her teens and twenties (as played by dazzling newcomer Stacy Martin), and also as a middle-aged survivor (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The tale is framed by Joe in the present, recalling her life to a man (Stellan Skarsgård) who, after finding her crumpled in an alleyway, takes her back to his place to recover. We cut from this long, dark night of soul-baring to flashes of Joe’s past, including her initial awareness of her sexuality (“I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old”) and many conquests.
Chaotic and not especially pretty, the film has more of the punkish, radical spirit of Von Trier’s The Idiots than the gloss of his Melancholia. There’s plenty of flesh (much of it belonging to porn doubles), but the film is rarely, if ever, what most people would call erotic. It’s neither deeply serious nor totally insincere, undercutting its focus with bizarre digressions (fly-fishing?), a ragbag of acting styles, and humor. It feels like an X-rated farce, with a playfulness that keeps you close.