Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a five and a half hour sexcapade through the life of a hardcore (what else?) nymphomaniac and, by its very existence, dares producers to waggle their fingers in shame and cut away large portions of the film. So it comes as a surprise to precisely no one that, when Von Trier turned in his cut of Nymphomaniac, its producers immediately seized upon it, fingers primed and scalpels at the ready.
But what may come as a surprise to some is that the paring down of Von Trier’s newest “sex epic” has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with money. An interview with producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen in the Danish magazine Filmmagasinet Ekko (conveniently translated for us English speakers by The Hollywood Reporter) sheds light on all the gory details. Von Trier’s cut of Nymphomaniac was first relieved of ninety minutes of footage, reducing it to a brisk four hours, then split down the middle into two separate feature films. No sex will be cut, or at least no sex will be cut solely for the sake of toning the film down. As well, previous plans to release a second, less explicit version of Nymphomaniac have been abandoned, and individual distributors will now decide for themselves whose junk will be blurred out and whose will be left intact.
The film was always planned as a two-parter, but the trimming down is a new adjustment; especially for Von Trier, who’s never ceded the final cut of one of his films before. It doesn’t sound as though he’s particularly excited about it. According to Jensen, “The short version is against Lars’ own will, but he accepts it because he understands market mechanisms.” There’s some logic in this. A five and a half hour movie could only be shown two or three times a day on a single screen, and that means less ticket money for all the good people in the theater business. And although a Von Trier film isn’t exactly your typical commercial release, consider that his last film, Melancholia, raked in an impressive $15m at the box office. Add in society’s natural curiosity for seeing celebrity actors with digitally-added private parts (and yes, that is really happening), and Von Trier may have another hit on his hands.
The situation isn’t exactly a novel one. Art films, with their lengthy running times and their fancy ideas and their “symbolism,” are an easy target for those who want everything boiled down into easily consumable, Despicable Me 2-sized pieces. Before Nymphomaniac, there was Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho’s post-apocalyptic train-stravaganza that’s still being tampered with by the Weinstein Company. According to Harvey Weinstein, the cuts are to ensure that those damn Midwesterners will be able to follow along. Bong, however, puts a far more diplomatic spin on it. In an interview with Twitch, he says the Weinsteins “want a more speedy tempo.” Bong says he’s open to making a few changes, but can’t help from firing off a shot at his American overlords. In the same interview, the director gloats how his cut was screened alongside an early Weinstein cut, and audiences rated the original far higher.
The tampering done to The Grandmaster was a little more amiable. Wong Kar-Wai may be a living legend, but even he was given the same Weinstein demand for a trim. Yet here, Wong was allowed to make his own changes, and both he and the film’s cast actually spoke highly of the decision to cut the film (whether or not they were coerced into saying so at gunpoint remains to be seen). They say the film’s roots in Chinese martial arts culture would be alienating to non-Chinese audiences, and the new cut would be a little more approachable. As Zhang Ziyi puts it, “It’s clearer. Easier for foreigners” (insulting to foreigners? maybe a little bit). Wong “took it as a challenge” to shave twenty minutes off his original film, making the best possible lemonade out of a basket of Harvey Weinstein-shaped lemons.
Over on the opposite side of the spectrum is John Woo’s Red Cliff. Like Nymphomaniac, it was a four-hour behemoth broken in half for audiences’ convenience, but unlike Von Trier’s latest, Red Cliff required no additional cuts before being released to Chinese audiences. Perhaps that’s the moral of the story. Five and a half hours will require cutting every time, while four hours is just short enough to stay within the limits for a multi-hour epic film. Sure, Red Cliff was still stripped down to a mere two and a half hours for its American release, but the edited version received the same glowing praise that the original did.
Magnolia Pictures is handling the US distribution of Nymphomaniac, but who knows if we’ll be getting the twin two-hour arthouse pornos the rest of the world will, or if American audiences will require further cutting before such smut will be accepted into our good, wholesome multiplexes. Just pray no one tries to release it in 3D.