In the opening chapter of Lars von Trier’s sexually explicit Nymphomaniac, Young Joe’s burgeoning sexual addiction is sparked by the guidance of the experienced B. Fearless, provocative and utterly self-assured, B is the type of friend who is life affirming as a teenager and an uncomfortable memory in later life.
The pair’s challenge is simple. During the course of train trip somewhere unspecified in mid-‘70s Britain, Joe and B compete to see who can seduce the most men before they reach their destination. The prize – which absurd as it is, reflects their utter naivety – is a bag of chocolates.
B’s advice sets Joe on her way: “Smile. Make eye contact. If you have to talk, remember to ask lots of wh- questions if you want more than a yes or no answer. And then it will just happen on its own. You just take them to the lavatory and have sex with them.”
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What follows is Joe’s lifelong descent into extreme impulsive sexual behaviour: orgies, S&M, young men, old men, fat men, affairs that destroy families. Even the additional cast listed in the film’s credits hint at the depth of Joe’s journey: Men A-D having sex; The Whore of Babylon; Debtor getting whipped.
And featured in the core ensemble cast, alongside bona-fide stars and von Trier’s regular collaborators, are two emerging British talents in the shape of Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark – respectively, Young Joe and B.
Raised in the northeast of Scotland, Sophie Kennedy Clark relocated to a bohemian, urban existence in New York at the age of 17 to help kick-start her career with a series of acting courses. Her mother had a small role in The Wicker Man (“I think she ends up getting her head cut off”), which suggests that a connection to controversial cult movies lies in the Kennedy genes. Nymphomaniac was her first substantial experience on the set of a major film.
A few months before filming started, nerves took hold: “Have I got myself into something which is a bit too arty? And a bit too Danish?” Posing for the film’s infamous series of o-face posters was also unconventional.
“Being flung in to a situation where your mum calls you up and asks, ‘What have you done today?’ And you have to tell her in a round-about way that you have spent the afternoon pulling orgasm faces for a photographer...” She sighs. “It isn’t a conversation that I’d like to repeat.”
Her first day set the tone for what was to follow. After landing in Cologne for filming, she desperately scanned the airport in search of the driver who had been despatched to collect her.
“I didn’t really know who I was looking for,” she recalls. “And then my eyes were met by a huge white sign that said in block capital letters ‘SOPHIE KENNEDY CLARK: NYMPHOMANIAC’. I was so unbelievably mortified because everyone in that room must’ve been waiting for the person who walked up to the man with the sign ‘NYMPHOMANIAC’. Everybody’s head turned as if to say, ‘It’s her!’ It was never dull from that point on.”
The film’s opening chapter could stretch the boundaries of believability for some audiences. As experimental as teenagers can be, would they really go that far? Kennedy Clark argues that it was a product of the era.
“Girls were only just getting the understanding of that liberation that women were starting to take control of. If you felt like you wanted to do something, women had the choice. Exploring that kind of world, especially sexually, was something that teenagers thought was a perfectly approachable and normal thing to do if they wanted to. And yet they’re so naïve as to what they’re getting themselves into because they’re teenagers. B doesn’t really know anything herself, but she’s one of those very gregarious team leaders.”
Layered within von Trier’s almost comic provocations is a serious point about the differing perceptions of male and female sexuality. “Men can have sex addictions, that’s been wildly publicised,” she concurs. “But a woman… you’re a slag, right? There’s never really a correlation of it actually being a mental problem. The one thing I tell everybody about this film is that it’s not sexy, because addictions are not sexy.”
Inevitably, the film also addresses the issue of cinematic sex being considered a taboo subject in a culture in which graphic violence on primetime television barely triggers a reaction. Kennedy Clark’s personal experience is similar. Her family, she says, could watch a horrific murder scene in a film but would be more uncomfortable watching something like Nymphomaniac. Is it a changing tide?
“I think this film is, and there have been a couple already lately – Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Lovelace – that are beginning to change people’s minds.”
At the centre of it all is von Trier’s continuing audacity to challenge an audience. “I built up this man in my mind as being this kind of Machiavellian, very bizarre, psychotic director,” she admits. “I got there and he’s a very softly spoken man. You almost feel quite nervous around him at times because he’s not someone who is an overriding presence.
“What he does so cleverly is he gives actors this creative license, which is one of the most liberating experiences that I’ve ever had on set. He has faith that he has cast you and that you can do it, but he wants to see what comes from you before he comes and tweaks anything.”
Kennedy Clark’s profile is still building steadily. She has appeared in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series, been seen opposite Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, and played the younger version of Judi Dench’s title role in the enduringly popular Philomena. There was even in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the Noah And The Whale short Nuclear Toads. “The three film roles I did last year were so different and it was a complete gift. How have I just gone from a weird sexual train journey to a convent [in Philomena]?”
Next on the agenda will be a role as Milly in Brad Anderson’s Eliza Graves, an adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe short story that also features Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess and Sir Ben Kingsley, which was filmed in Bulgaria last summer.
“I’m in the asylum. She’s in her early 20s, but she has the mind of a nine-year-old,” she explains in a sing-song lullaby. “So that was a push. I don’t think I’ve had a weirder summer.”
And longer term, is there an ultimate aspiration or would she been happy continuing following whichever fantastical options might appear on the road ahead of her? “Usually when it comes to film choices, I like to think: what would Michelle Williams do? But the road has taken me to some good places so far, so I’d be a fool to bite the hand that feeds me.”
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Words: Ben Hopkins
Photography: Ash Kingston
Fashion: Lola Chatterton
Both volumes of Nymphomaniac are released on February 22nd.