Bigger, Longer, Uncut: A Critic's Take on the Director's Cut of 'Nymphomaniac'
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 helps it play as more confrontational, more visceral, more of a contrast to the philosophical musing scenes between Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard in the framing device, forming an altogether more ballsy film, 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 volume 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.