ARTICLE JORDAN SILVER
PHOTOGRAPHY GASPAR NOE
STYLIST OMAIMA SALEM
FOR HER FILM DEBUT, ACTRESS STACY MARTIN STARS IN LARS VON TRIER’S NYMPHOMANIAC, A MEDITATION ON THE BALANCE BETWEEN PLEASURE AND PAIN, MATH AND MYTHOLOGY, FACT AND FAITH, SOCIETY AND SELFHOOD. HERE, SHE’S PHOTOGRAPHED BY ANOTHER ICONIC AVANT-GARDE FILMMAKER, GASPAR NOÉ.
Stacy Martin sits in a quaint salon at the offices of her U.K. talent agency. All of the prototypical English amenities are lying untouched on the glass table between us. She carries herself contentedly and appears self-assured, but with a certain underlying sense of wide-eyed wonderment—a demeanor to be expected, as she’s only just begun the press rounds promoting her very first film, the incomparable Lars von Trier’s latest, Nymphomaniac.
With 55 nude scenes in the can, a “porn double” on set (to stand in during hard-core penetration), and a prosthetic mold of her vagina now hanging around some prop house, the summation of her filmic experience reads like that of a seasoned art-house veteran, which makes the fact that this is her maiden performance all the more impressive. And while commercial viability never really enters the equation with Von Trier, expectations could not be higher as Martin’s acting debut is slated for a two-part American release in March and April of this year.
Born and educated in Paris, though raised partly in Japan, the 23-year-old Martin seems either entirely unconcerned about or oblivious to the fact that she is poised to become a magnet for mainstream attention. And not just for the provocative nature of this role, but for her brilliant and compelling delivery as well. After five years sheltered by relative anonymity while modeling her way through college and acting classes, she netted the opportunity of a lifetime as the younger analogue to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe: a hypersexual antihero, fucking her way to retribution and freedom from the prevailing social contract of polite society. The story, told in eight chapters through flashback and narration, follows Joe on her journey from childhood libidinal awakening to a sort of postsexual enlightenment, with plenty of Oedipal conflicts, adolescent angst, and sadomasochism in between. It isn’t just a film about sex or sex addiction. It’s a film about how sex governs and acts upon the entirety of our existence, right down to the very last banality of home life.
Martin, for her part, is under no illusion about the nature of the business that gave her her start, to say nothing of its implicit correspondence with the subject of this film. “Maybe I have been exploited as a model. When you’re a model, you’re a hanger. You are objectified and you are used and then portrayed a certain way.” What’s most striking, however, about such a seemingly inflammatory remark is that Martin delivers it without the slightest hint of cynicism or contempt, conveying only mindfulness of how things work. Sure, the money’s good, but it demands a palpable existential sacrifice to stand in for the aesthetic embodiment of some generic feminine persona, be it “the girl next door,” “the grungy kid,” “the sexy sophisticate,” or “the weird, quirky girl.” “It’s playing on what culture says a woman is,” Martin continues. And what culture says a woman is is exactly what Joe wants to destroy. These obsolete, hypocritical demands for both morally upstanding behavior and sex appeal are enough to drive anyone mad. Why can’t a woman be free to be both the Madonna and the whore without fear of judgment?
“We as women give birth to everyone, but at the same time we’re restricted, we have to act a certain way, and we have to fill a certain role,” Stacy says, as if employing the subtext of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866) to make her point. Forcing the world to confront its own collective duplicity is perhaps Lars von Trier’s greatest strength as an auteur. Not since Freud published his case study on Dora has there been a more vivid example of hysteria and the ineffable rift between woman as subject and woman as object than in Nymphomaniac. This becomes especially apparent when considered within the context of Von Trier’s other recent films, Melancholia and Antichrist. Unfortunately, as is often the case with his more defiant work, the biting nuance of his social commentary is often overlooked by an audience and media overly focused on the explicitness of its delivery. In Antichrist, for example—a tragic story about a mourning mother sadistically made to suppress her personal experience of grief according to the demands of an aloof husband turned psychoanalyst—the film’s subtle psychology was overshadowed by a few shocking scenes of genital mutilation. If society insists on being so crass and vulgar as to reduce the idea of woman to the sum of her parts, the least it can do is acknowledge the staggering complexity that exists down there. But whether these ideas as brilliantly proffered by Von Trier in Nymphomaniac will overcome the film’s graphic honesty remains to be seen.
A smiley young man enters the room to bring Stacy a tea, and on his way out kicks my umbrella by accident. He’s quick to apologize and nervously stands it back up. But Stacy just as quickly makes a joke to lighten the mood and allay his embarrassment, a talent not without its value in her line of work, especially when you’re spending long hours fully nude, simulating sex acts with men you’ve only just met in front of an entire film crew. The door closes behind him, leaving us alone again, and the irony of the situation dawns on me: after having finally finished working on such a physically and emotionally demanding film, she’s now being asked to speak candidly with countless perfect strangers, such as myself, about her life—her real life. The complexity of this situation is not lost on Martin in the slightest, who is eager to talk about these types of serious subjects in hopes of providing a better understanding of the profound sense of alienation the film confronts.
Martin knew very well what Nymphomaniac was trying to say when she signed on to the project, and she remains passionate even now about wanting to deliver the message. This deep understanding is perhaps how she was able to keep such a positive outlook in spite of some of the more extreme physical demands of the role. There was never any expectation that filming numerous nude sex scenes—often more than one in the same day—was going to be an enjoyable experience. And it could yet emerge to have been a futile one, as these commentaries on gender bias and sexual oppression sometimes get lost in the fray of such shocking imagery. What carried her through the discomfort was her faith in Lars. “It was an amazing opportunity,” she says, “and I just wanted to honor how good the script was.” When I ask whether she found the filming to be coercive or exploitative (a clear allusion on my part to the controversy surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color) Martin once again references her pragmatic approach to acting. “I just think, well, they are difficult scenes, you’re not going to be laughing through them. I would feel empty after, and I would think to myself, Is this me as a person or is this me as the character? There’s a really fine line. I wasn’t ashamed to be tired or upset or angry. It’s probably how [Joe] felt. It’s difficult, but that’s the process.” Such an evolved perspective is impressive, and rare among first-time actors. This is likely something Von Trier too was able to identify in Stacy, seeing as this sort of bravery and openness are so crucial to the role.
The determination to be free from her oppressor by any means necessary sets Joe apart from the heroines of Von Trier’s other films. Joe is not concerned with what the world thinks of her. Her only care is what she thinks of herself. Something not unlike what Stacy Martin has undertaken in accepting this role. Joe calls society cowardly and hypocritical, and has devoted her life to transgressing what the “morality police” deem obscene. Any attempt to identify herself with the outside world only ends up reaffirming her resolve to cut herself off from it once and for all. She acts according to what is right for her and her alone. Stacy, in turn, is building a career by taking the path less traveled, the one more timid individuals may have shied away from for fear of the negative perception it could bring. In both cases, what emerges is an affirmation of the subjective self in the face of societal prohibition, a blatant disregard for the judging eyes of others—something to which one cannot help but be attracted.
Jacques Lacan once theorized that “woman doesn’t exist” but rather is only “the symptom of man.” In a world as such, intent on the effacement of feminine subjectivity, where a woman’s identity is conditioned by motherhood, matrimony, and sex appeal, true power comes in the refusal to further perpetuate false selfhood. Joe’s journey in Nymphomaniac is that of a hysterical breakdown. In not being able to reconcile who she thinks she is with who she is expected to be, Joe can regain her subjectivity—her true autonomous identity—only by means of an irreversible break from society. Stacy Martin, for her part, seems to be following suit in engendering a similar idea of empowerment for herself. She too has broken from the comforts of the status quo, and is instead setting off into the unknown. “I really wasn’t that person I thought I was,” she says with regard to her exit from modeling to pursue what she felt would be a more fulfilling existence. The significance of not merely having such a realization but being strong enough to act on it, to set off in one’s own way, on one’s own terms, cannot be overstated. We will see more of Stacy in the future to be sure, but it will be as she wants, not as what we want from her.
Makeup Christine Corbel (Management Artists) Hair Olivier de Vriendt (ArtList) Manicure Kamel (B-Agency) Photo assistant Emmanuel Trousse Stylist assistant Oumeih Benaicha Production Backwall Retouching Maxime Lefebre Roque (Odalisques) Special thanks Le Carmen