The 5½-hour uncut and uncensored version of Lars von Trier’s controversial film is smooth but hardcore and stronger than the sum of its parts.
Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier
Director of Photography:
Manuel Alberto Claro
Running time: 325 minutes
The long-awaited director’s cut of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac has everything audiences were promised at the outset but didn’t get when the two shortened volumes were released separately. In this very lengthy version, more than 80 minutes have been restored after an outcry from the director and a wave of interest from viewers who were intrigued by what they got to see the first time around. The final cut, although still presented in two parts with their own final credits, is surprisingly strong, even as we can see why many of the shots were cut or scenes trimmed.
First of all, it has to be said that the editors on the shortened versions did a remarkable job paring the 325 minutes of the director’s cut down to around 240 minutes. Their work can only be thoroughly appreciated now that we can compare the two cuts with each other, which both convey the same story as before and have a remarkably similar focus.
The film is still a story-within-a-story, and it opens with the middle-aged Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) being discovered bloodied and beaten up in a London alley by the lonesome book worm Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Seligman takes her back to his place to recuperate and asks her what happened. She proceeds to tell him all about her life of loneliness, love and lots of sex, and how she ended up getting exactly what was coming to her, as she fatalistically suggests.
Out of the two volumes, the first, which covers most of Joe’s years as a teenager and a young adult, had far less footage cut (around 30 minutes) than the second (almost a full hour), and indeed it is not always easy to point to new material. There surely are standout moments, such as a depiction of the god Odin in the ash tree (the Norse world tree) that Joe’s father tells her about as a young girl, or the much extended sequence at the hospital while her father writhes in agony as he leaves this life.
There are other moments, too, that are rather easy to notice, and it is equally understandable why the editors removed them. These include, for example, two shots in the train that show Joe’s friend Bee followed by a conquest, to underline Joe’s frustration at not having the same success at hooking up. In the shorter version, there is only one shot, and the scene is significantly shorter. The same is true later on, when both girls pretend to be heartbroken in order to tease comfort from the male passengers in their respective compartments. In the shorter version, we see only how Joe went about this performance. The cuts served to narrow the focus to Joe rather than the event in its holistic sprawl and were very effective. We also got much less of Bee’s elaborate recounting of one of her sexual episodes to a group of promiscuous young women who call themselves the “little flock”, which serves no real purpose in the director’s cut.
Although it took out very little material, one of the most significant cuts becomes apparent in “Chapter 2: Jerôme”: In the short version, when Joe decides to deliver a love letter to Jerôme, her boss, who also took her virginity when they were both teenagers, she arrives at his office only to find he has left with his secretary. In the longer version, we see two scenes in which Joe shares her feelings with the secretary and is told that she should deliver the letter on a specific day, which turns out to be the day they leave together.
These specific scenes add much greater depth to Joe’s character, as they depict a kind of longing or yearning for Jerôme that was not as evident in the shorter version, and ultimately these moments elicit more empathy for her from the viewer.
The largest chunk of new material in the first volume forms part of the black-and-white “Chapter 4: Delirium”, in which Joe’s father dies. While the shorter version did make an impact, the effect was much weaker than it is now, as we get a much firmer sense of unconditional love between the father and daughter, and his ultimate demise is truly affecting.
In general, however, the most obvious difference between the two cuts is the quantity of full frontal nudity, as there was a modest amount in the edited version compared with the copious number of male members, often presented in close-up, entering a variety of holes – one of which, we now learn in this latest cut, Joe calls her “Pandora’s box” – in the director’s cut. Particular mention has to be made of Von Trier’s unexpected use of the Proustian idea of the madeleine (wholly absent from the edited version) after a graphic scene of oral sex performed on the train, which before had been heavily cut.
We also learn her father left her his caliper, which they used to measured leaves with. These two details tie in with subtle indications of incest later on in Vol. II, as the caliper features in a self-performed abortion scene, and Joe flips through her book of dead leaves shortly before she starts to touch herself.
The abortion scene is a showstopper. It lasts (or feels like it lasts) an extraordinary amount of time and was completely omitted from the shorter version of Vol. II. It is without a doubt the most gruesome and grisly scene in the entire span of Nymphomaniac and is one of the most wrenching scenes I have ever witnessed on film, right up there with Irreversible’s head-pulverisation with a fire extinguisher and the climactic sequence of misery at the end of Requiem for a Dream. And yet, while a conversation between Joe and Seligman about the pros and cons of getting an abortion is too long, the act itself – in which Joe uses some of her medical training (shown here in a few restored shots in Vol. II) to expel her foetus with, among other things, a knitting needle and a clothes hanger – is as powerful as anything you will ever see on film.
Another scene in Vol. II that is much longer now is the “sandwich”, or the three-way sex scene between Joe and two very well-endowed men from somewhere on the African continent, which is the film’s only scene that unquestionably falls into the area of pornography.
A film that lasts 5½ hours will either draw us in and make us feel like we are a part of the world of the story or annoy the viewer with the feeling that time is standing still. In this case, while the film’s “present” is only one night, the events recounted last many decades, and thanks to a plethora of sexual adventures and a comparable spectrum of philosophical and socially relevant discussions, the film is never static.
The energy of the relatively quick succession of events in the shorter version has dissipated, but the more ample information we get now is always interesting, even when it seems entirely tangential. One odd shot, however, which may or may not have been in the shorter version, is of a mirror inside Seligman’s apartment. In an inexplicable moment of obliquely breaking the fourth wall, Von Trier’s camera appears in the mirror for a longer-than-brief period of time when this object is shown to us. What this overt manifestation of the author inside his own work implies is not at all clear, but with topics ranging from the Fibonacci numbers and sexual polyphony to Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, perhaps these just add to the elusive quality of this work that simultaneously appeals to and repulses us (a bit like the suffering and the joy that relate to the Western and the Eastern Church, respectively, in the film), and whose intended meaning we may never grasp in full.
The director’s cut (of which Vol. I was screened at the Berlinale, and Vol. II premiered at the Venice International Film Festival) smoothes out the rough edges of the dialogue scenes between Joe and Seligman in the short versions, presents us with too many giant trouser snakes to count and emphasises the beautiful rapport between Joe and her father that made for the one truly unblemished relationship of her life.
Von Trier, whose first language is not English, fails to engage us with many of the smaller roles, whose actors often sound like they are reading their lines, but all the main parts are admirably played, and Uma Thurman in particular is absolutely captivating in her role as the wife who loses her husband to Joe’s lustful escapades. Unfortunately, the director’s cut has no additional footage for their unforgettable confrontation.
The cynics might say this strategy of teasing viewers by releasing two films before releasing their “final cuts” less than a year later is all a marketing ploy on the part of director Von Trier, who has worked in the industry for long enough to know how things work. That may well be the case, but neither the story he tells nor the way he tells it have changed substantially, and whether viewers get to see the shortened or the original longform version, the experience ought to be one of great fun and pleasure that also leads us to deeper questions, not only about sex, but about our lives as human beings. And that certainly cannot be said for any other film that features this much nudity (although the fans of Last Tango in Paris may disagree). It may not be as coherent – and driven by a strong central issue – as his magnificent Manderlay, but the talent, intellect and yes, provocation, of Von Trier is unmistakable.