‘Nymphomaniac Vol. 1’: Bigger, Longer and Uncut

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1’: Bigger, Longer and Uncut

The unedited version of Lars von Trier's shagnum opus is somewhat more explicit than its whittled-down predecessor but structurally similar.

Scott Foundas [Chief Film Critic]

Between director Lars von Trier’s custom “persona non grata” T-shirt and star Shia LaBeouf’s press-conference walkout and paper-bag mask, “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1” generated at least as much attention offscreen as it did on Sunday afternoon at the Berlin Film Festival. Meanwhile, inside the packed 1,600-seat Berlinale Palast, audiences got their first look at the bigger, longer and uncut version of von Trier’s magnum opus — or, at least, the first part of it, with the uncut “Vol. 2” expected to premiere at another high-profile festival sometime later in the year.

And there was quite a lot more to see — 30 minutes’ worth, to be exact — of the Danish director’s bifurcated magnum opus, compared with the edited version released commercially in Europe last December and screened at the Sundance Film Festival last month. But both in the lobby following the screening and on social media afterward, many critics — including this one — were at a loss to itemize exactly which scenes and sequences had been augmented for this director’s cut. “Was the Proust joke there before?” asked one colleague, while another suggested that an early shot of the Norse mythological god Odin sitting in a tree might have been a new addition.

One thing everyone could agree on: The longer “Vol. 1” includes a modicum of more explicit sexual footage, most conspicuously during an episode of oral sex on a moving train that now features a screen-filling closeup of an ejaculating penis where none was before. An erect member belonging either to Mr. LaBeouf or his body double also makes a more prominent appearance during the end-of-“Vol. 1” sex scene in which the movie’s titular heroine, Joe (played as a young woman by newcomer Stacy Martin and, in middle age, by Charlotte Gainsbourg), loses all feeling … down there.

Among less sensational additions, a visit by Joe to her dying father (Christian Slater) has been significantly expanded. Alas, it appears that von Trier had already used every available frame of “Vol. 1’s” most showstopping encounter — the confrontation of Joe by one of her lovers’ jilted wife (Uma Thurman) — the first time around. Hell hath no fury like a woman dumped for a sex addict.

Structurally, however, the two versions of the film are the same, meaning audiences who see the shorter “Vol. 1” in general release or on VOD when it opens in the U.S. this spring needn’t feel they’re missing out on all that much (compared with, say, movies like “Heaven’s Gate” and “Once Upon a Time in America” that had entire hours shorn from them for mass-audience consumption).

In either edit, the movie remains a ferociously entertaining experience in which one finds von Trier at the peak of his craft, linking together ideas about female sexuality, fly-fishing and artistic creation with equal amounts of playfulness and intellectual rigor. As one surprised journalist told the cast (and, by extension, their absent director) at the press conference, “It was a lot more fun than we expected.”

UPDATED 2/10/2014

Berlin Review: Lars von Trier's Director's Cut Of 'Nymphomaniac Part 1'

But hey, enough with the thematic deconstruction (we're sure we'll be unpacking this for weeks to come anyway), what about the sex? Good news, horndogs male and female, in between digressions about fingernails and Fibonacci sequences, there's plenty of it, and in this longer version anyway, a large number of erect penises (as well as a gallery of images of flaccid ones), plenty of close-up penetration and some macro images of tongue against labia and mouth on penis (there's a also a very graphic scene in which students are being taught how to perform an abortion, which is the one point we did see LVT in full-on exploitative provocateur mode; not totally sure we needed that). But what was surprising is actually how, on the rare occasion (and not necessarily the penetration scenes) the film actually struck us as sexy, something that, to be honest, we don't come across that often. But here, perhaps because they deal in the realm of a female erotic imagination that we hardly ever see depicted so unsanctimoniously, and because there's something exhilirating in relating to Joe's agency if not her decisions, there really are turn-ons. Is that gross to admit? Well, fuck it, it's true for this female. And von Trier even has a little joke at the expense of the difference between male and female eroticism (not that men won't be equally into the gorgeous, lithe, uninhibited younger Joe getting it on six ways to Sunday), when he strays once into Seligman's own fantasy, cued by Joe talking about her "education." The image of young Joe, presented as a sexualized schoolgirl pointing at a map of the U.K. and intoning "Glasgow. Aberdeen." is so daft in this context that even Seligman looks abashed when called back to the present.

Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac unveiled in Berlin

At Berlin the Danish director was premiering an extended cut of the first half, Volume 1, which runs at 145 mins, compared to the 118 mins of the cinema release version, and is unlikely ever to receive a theatrical release (or a certificate) in this form. This extended cut includes considerably more explicit material, including close-ups of genitalia and sexual activity that would be considered hardcore pornography in any other context. (Von Trier and the actors have said body doubles and visual effects were employed).

Speaking at the press conference, Nymphomaniac's producer Louise Vesth confirmed that the extended version is Von Trier's own cut. "All the material that Lars wanted to use from the shoot is in the long version," she said. "It is not like there is a new story in the film: the sexual content is more explicit, and it goes deeper into the discussion scenes."

But attention, inevitably, was focused on the film's sex scenes, which have far outdone previously benchmark art films such as Catherine Breillat's Romance, Michael Winterbottom's Nine Songs and Von Trier's own The Idiots, all of which contain hardcore sequences.

Vesth pointed out that the content of the film made it more difficult for Von Trier to realise his cinematic vision to his own satisfaction, because of the rules governing the portrayal of sexual activity. "Sex is more difficult than violence," she said. "I don't know why, but that's how it is."

However, all the actors agreed that Von Trier made their jobs easier.

Christian Slater, who plays Joe's father said: "As an actor I felt safe. Lars is a very genuine, real person; you can tell right away he's a sensitive soul. He asks you to do something, you'll do it."

Skarsgard said: "He makes you feel comfortable, which means it becomes possible to take risks."

Stacy Martin, the 23 year old English former model who played Joe as a young woman said: "I really trusted Lars. I didn't have anything to lose; it was my first film. The script was so fascinating, it really made me believe in it. I had to jump on the train."

Why the Shorter Version of 'Nymphomaniac Volume I' Is Better Than Lars Von Trier's Director's Cut

That’s not to say that the longer version doesn’t offer its fair share of surplus sex. But it's a case of slight extensions rather than wholesale scenes. For example: The train scene in "The Complete Angle" — in which Joe and her friend compete for the number of guys they can seduce in a limited time period — contains roughly two additional seconds of vaginal penetration and, give or take, another handful (or mouthful?) of oral sex. In fact, most of Joe's sexual encounters are afforded a couple of extra frames, along with a few generous close-ups. Sprinkle a few more bodily juices and you've essentially covered the extent of the alleged "controversial" bonus content offered by the director's cut.

Bigger, Longer, Uncut: A Critic's Take on the Director's Cut of 'Nymphomaniac'

Stacy Martin and Uma Thurman in 'Nymphomaniac Vol. 1'

Although the version shown in Berlin is half an hour longer than the abridged version of Lars von Trier's erotic drama, viewers struggled to see the difference.

BERLIN - Outside the Berlinale Palast on Sunday afternoon, those who had just seen the 12 p.m. press screening of the director’s cut of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 poured out into Marlene-Dietrich-Platz. Like drops of mercury, they began clumping into little groups, each one discussing the burning question of the moment: WTF? Did we all miss something, or was this version pretty much, more or less, just like the abridged screened we all saw two months ago, but this time with more genital close-ups?

It looked that way to many of us, and yet how could we account for the fact that the film we’d just seen was anywhere between 30 and 25 minutes longer than the shortened version, the one that was edited, according to its producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen, “against Lars’ own will” but accepted by him “because he understands market mechanisms.” Does von Trier also understand how to manipulate the space-time continuum?

The group I joined all concurred that there was, as we expected, more sex sprinkled throughout the film. There was some explicit fellatio coupled with a “money shot” we didn't remember being quite that long before in the train scene at the beginning, more erect penises throughout, and in the final 10 minute montage set to Bach extreme close-ups of cunnilingus and an insertion that must have involved a some rather acrobatic maneuvers on the part of the body doubles and the camera person. But all that material surely couldn’t have added up to more than a few minutes at best – where did the rest of come from?

One person suggested that there’s more footage in this version of Christian Slater, playing the father of the lead character Joe (played by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg). It felt like Slater tells a longer anecdote this time round about trees at the beginning (covering not just ash trees but also limes), and later on talks more to Joe before he starts dying in black and white. Perhaps there was a bit more as well of Sophie Kennedy Clark as Joe’s friend B describing a hook-up to her friends, and what was only a fleeting shot in the shortened version of an abortion being performed now gets a brief scene.

If there's extra footage from the scene where Uma Thurman plays a passive-aggressive jilted wife from hell, it's terribly fleeting. That's a shame because nearly everyone agrees that this sequence is both the funniest and most moving scene in the first volume.

Ultimately, the most important question is does the extra material enhance or detract from the film? Personally, I wouldn’t argue that any of the non-sexual material added back in for this version improves much. That said, the possibly-extended scene where Christian Slater dies now feels more dramatic when juxtaposed with the definitely more hardcore images that immediately follow it, laying death and sex up against each other in a more forceful way. The visual vocabulary here in general feels closer to proper porn than in the shortened edition, which makes it feel more confrontational, more visceral, more of a contrast to the philosophical musing scenes between Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard in the framing device, and altogether more ballsy, in every sense.

It’s still, based on the volume seen today, a half-magnificent, half-ridiculous mess. It’s still apparent that von Trier has only the sketchiest of ideas about what makes a woman tick sexually. And it’s still clear that Stacy Martin in not much of an actor (the second half seen earlier was all the better for ditching her in favor of Gainsbourg). But putting more sex back in somehow makes it a more internally coherent mess, and hard to see why audiences who would be in for the penny of the four-hour version wouldn’t be just as willing to opt for the pound of an extended five and half hour cut, censors permitting.

Berlinale 2014: Laying Bare The NYMPHOMANIAC Director's Cut

And now, the $64,000 question: is there more sex, and is it more explicit? The short answer is: Yes. The slightly longer answer is: Not As Much As You'd Expect. 

As in the rest of the film, there are no new sequences. Shots in existing montages are lengthened and the camera will sometimes pan down to show more penetration, though never for longer than a second or two. The most noticeable additions are shots of oral sex. We see Joe performing it and having it performed on her in extreme close-ups. A man's orgasm plays out on his face in the theatrical cut. Here we get the money shot. A shot of cunnilingus is held so tight it goes past explicit and into Georgia O'Keefe territory. A scene of a gynecologist operating is necessarily clinical, not titillating. That's about it, really.

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