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'Nymphomaniac' star: Von Trier film contains 'nothing' controversial

NEW YORK--Pretty much since the moment it began shooting, Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” has whipped up controversy for its explicit nature and willingness to tackle sexual taboos. The film’s frank portrayal of sexual obsession--and a character’s eagerness to act thereon — is a notion most English-language films stay away from, and certainly English-language films with mainstream celebrities like Shia LaBeouf.

But one of the film’s stars says that there’s little place or reason for outrage. “I don’t see it as controversial,” actor Stellan Skarsgard told The Times in an interview at a hotel cafe here. “To me nothing is controversial about it. It’s normal; it’s life. Life is much more controversial than this film.”

“Nymphomaniac” -- whose first two-hour “Volume” opens Friday with the second chapter coming in two weeks -- follows the sexual coming-of-age of a woman named Joe (Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg at different life stages), as she engages in compulsive behavior with disregard for, and often causing great pain among, the people around her. Von Trier sets up the movie such that an older, wounded Joe (Gainsbourg) is telling her story to a gentle academic (Skarsgard). Racked with guilt, she is seeking a kind of penance via verbal flogging from him, but he refuses to condemn her.

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The film has already garnered bans in places such as Turkey, where a planned opening for Friday was scrapped after the cinema board voted to bar it from playing. The culture ministry in Romania had also previously banned the film, but then reversed course and fired the official who made the decision.

Skarsgard says any decision to censor the film can and should change. “I think gradually we wear down stupidity, if you’re insistent,” he said. “And to me forbidding this film on religious grounds is stupidity.”

Critical takes on the movie lend support to that opinion. Even though frontal nudity--most notably but not limited to a montage of penises--and graphic sex acts are common sights in “Nymphomania,” reviewers note such scenes don’t carry with them the kind of pornographic qualities these bans would suggest. Writing in The Times, Mark Olsen called some of its more graphic moments “more clinical than sexual. For anyone watching the movie for prurient titillation, the joke is on you,” he said.

Even philosophically, the Danish provocateur’s film has something other than orgiastic delight on its mind. Though “Nymphomaniac” is comfortable in showing characters engaging in all manner of infidelity and scruples-free behavior, the movie, whose main character is depicted as, at heart, deeply lonely, is hardly a celebration of addictive sexual behavior.

Besides, says Skarsgard, even the activities themselves lose their potency over time.  

“If you see the film your relation to watching sexual behavior on the screen will be very different,” he said. “When I saw the 5½ hour [director’s cut], after a while a penis entering an orifice became as normal a human thing as there is. it’s like somebody eating. It’s not erotic."

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