Should ‘Nymphomaniac’ Just Be One Long, Massive, Throbbing Film?

By  · Published on February 14th, 2014

It seems safe to assume that Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is not a cinematic event with lots of cross-audience appeal. The epic sex drama (sexrama?) seems to appeal almost exclusively to hardcore cinephiles and, yes, fans of hardcore sex. And it’s not just the explicit material that sets this one apart from the pack, it’s also its hefty runtime and split release. The Charlotte Gainsbourg-starring film clocks in at just over four hours, but the film has been sliced into two different volumes that will release in the U.S. at two different times, ensuring that fans will have to find two different time periods to decide, “hey, let’s head out for some emotionally draining sexual escapades at the theater, okay?”

While the film opened across some parts of Europe late last year (including a handful of countries that saw the opening of both films on the same day, though in an abridged format) with dates continuing to bleed into January and February, it’s also been making the film festival rounds, most recently screening in Berlin and previously popping up as a secret screening at Sundance (only Volume 1 was played, and the late notice event went up against the world premiere of the The Raid 2, not exactly ideal conditions). The film is undoubtedly a conversation-starter, but its split is also the subject of serious chatter, principally centered on debating the merits of seeing the film at two different times and not just watching the thing in a complete manner.

Should Nymphomaniac have been split? And, even with that split, should moviegoers still try to piggyback the two films into one massive experience?

While the film was long intended to be an epic two-parter, the film’s split was officially notated back in November, when producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen shared a number of details with the Danish magazine Filmmagasinet Ekko, thusly summed up by our own Adam Bellotto:

“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.”

The film’s two parts will hit both VOD and the local multiplex (no, probably not) on staggered release dates. Volume 1 will arrive on VOD on March 6, before going to theaters on March 21, while Volume 2 will hit VOD on April 2, followed by a theatrical release on April 18. While it may be possible to double feature the films, an official theatrical release of both has not been announced.

Von Trier recently debuted said longer cut of Volume 1 at Berlin (clocking in at 145 minutes), and the critical response appears to be decidely mixed. Is more actually more? And if a longer cut of one half of the film is too much, does that mean audiences should be pacing out their Volume 1 and Volume 2 viewing?

Over at IndieWire, James Berclaz-Lewis makes his thoughts on the matter plain, as his Berlin review of von Trier’s director’s cut proclaims: “Why the Shorter Version of ‘Nymphomaniac Volume I’ Is Better Than Lars Von Trier’s Director’s Cut.” Well then! Berclaz-Lewis argues that “the truth of the director’s cut was revealed to audiences at the Berlin International Film Festival on Sunday, and it’s not anywhere near as exciting as it sounds: The shortening of Nymphomaniac (at least the first half) seems to have more to do with the streamlining of an unwieldy corpus than any attempt by the distributor to deprive the public of some additional graphic money shots.”

Berclaz-Lewis points to “slight extensions” as making up much of the extra time, not the addition entirely new scenes. As he puts it, “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.” Ultimately, the extensions prove tiresome and inessential, and the writer concludes: “The truth is that the shorter version is a smoother, more focused and purposeful take on the oft-meandering longer one, its rough ungainliness eschewed for maximum economy.” One point to a shorter cut, and perhaps also a two-part viewing of the final films.

Yet also at IndieWire, Jessica Kiang takes to The Playlist to review von Trier’s director’s cut – one she found quite pleasing, apparently – energetically writing “it’s not like it had no expectations to live up to, yet it soared up past all of them, delivering an incredibly rich, engaging, occasionally challenging film whose 145 minutes flew by, culminating in an ending that in itself delivered such a clever, jolting cliffhanger, that it nearly made the decision to split it into two films completely forgivable. Except for the fact that we’re so utterly gagging for more right now that ‘Vol II’ can’t come quickly enough.” One point to the more is more line of thinking.

CineVue’s Ed Frankl seems to be similarly enthralled with the longer version, writing “for all of von Trier’s recent arty pretensions, the director’s got his mojo back because his filmmaking is once again so urgent. A sequence – extended for this version – in which Joe’s father (Christian Slater) descends into delirium, gives a glimpse of how von Trier, when pushed, can produce scenes of real rawness.” One point to throwing it all together.

Over at Variety, Scott Foundas also attempts to unpack the merits of the longer verison, along with just what was actually added. While Foundas finds the same kind of extensions that Berclaz-Lewis points to in his review, he also doesn’t seem fluttered over them. He writes: “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…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.” One point to, uh, both sides?

Let’s call it a draw – with everyone agreeing that the film (films?) should prove pleasing to von Trier fans and those seeking something fulfilling, no matter how they are delivered. (But we can’t say that we’d object to the inevitable Criterion Collection full-cut version of the film.)

Are you going to see Nymphomaniac? If so, how will you see it?