At four hours long, this drama is as confrontational as anything we've seen by Lars von Trier (Melancholia), but it's also perhaps his most humane and hopeful film yet. This is a challenging, complex exploration of human sexuality, but it's told with a surprisingly light touch, allowing humour and warmth to seep in around the edges. So even if it's darkly haunting and occasionally shocking, violent or sexually explicit, it's so recognisably honest that we can't help but be moved.
This is the story of Joe (played as a teen by Martin and as an adult by Gainsbourg), who is found near death in an alleyway and nursed back to health by the kindly Seligman (Skarsgard). While she recovers from her injuries, she tells him about her life, which has been defined by sex since she was 2 years old. She loses her virginity as a teen to the greasy biker Jerome (LaBeouf), who will re-enter her life two more times over the following decades. Through the years she struggles to understand love, which she sees as lust plus jealousy. Then when she suspects that love might be the secret ingredient for good sex, her subsequent experiences take her down an unexpected road.
Flashbacks to Joe's life are sequential, so as she narrates her story we experience it along with her. This includes her riotous teen years preying on men as a game, protesting with her friends against a love-fixated society. Getting sex is easy, but making sense of it is something else. She tries being randomly cruel to men, and having a master (Bell) physically abuse her. She experiences love and motherhood, and eventually finds a career as an enforcer for a loan shark (Dafoe). Along the way, Martin and Gainsbourg deliver unflinching performances that let us see Joe's soul. And Skarsgard takes our breath away in an unusually introspective, wrenching role.
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