However high a ceiling Lars Von Trier had previously built on his controversy scale, a project like “Nymphomaniac” was always going to shatter it. The word “pornography” was being liberally bandied around prior to the film’s premiere. We were told that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe was to recount her life of carnal addiction to a cerebral, asexual Stellan Skarsgard in a series of eight chapters. The movie promised an episodic chronicle of epic proportions in which the sex scenes were to be not only explicit, but also non-simulated. But now we know the truth: The movie wasn’t the salacious product suggested by the marketing hype.
Still, fueled by a provocative campaign, “Nymphomaniac” was preemptively built up as a self-indulgent sexual extravaganza (a misconception that many reviews, including Indiewire’s own, ultimately debunked). When its gargantuan five-hour running was trimmed and then divided into roughly equal parts — playing separately in theaters worldwide — it was widely accepted that the censored material most likely contained more sex scenes. However, 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.
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.
The absence of cuts is actually most notable in the “Delirium” chapter, in which Joe’s father, portrayed by Christian Slater, gradually edges towards death in a hospital bed, his sporadic violent fits of confusion creating an emotional burden for his supportive daughter. In a film so radical in parts, this sequence was arguably one of the shorter version’s least inspired parts, and it’s only worsened here by the lack of restraint and economy typical of a lot of Von Trier’s output. It has a similarly tiresome effect on the film’s early moments, as Skarsgard’s Seligman continuously halts Joe’s account to digress into his tenuous, but admittedly rather amusing comparison between fly fishing and sex. If his persistent interruptions are crucial to the chapter’s darkly humorous tone, they nevertheless outstay their welcome in the extended form.
The variety of pictures, archival footage and other drawings that permeate Seligman’s various rationalizations are also more numerous here. While these are part of the fun of Von Trier’s hyper-stylized approach, some of his original inclusions can’t help but feel entirely superfluous (I’m looking at you, odd black and white grainy footage of Odin hanging in a tree). On the other hand, a scene like the final “Little Organ School” chapter, which relies on a split screen device that conveys the harmony of various sexual partners in Joe’s mind, benefits from not being riddled with holes. Its shorter version still offered one of the film’s more surprising experiences but it lacks the internal rhythm of the untampered cut.
The initial announcement that “Nymphomaniac” would suffer the editing guillotine, along with the fact that its headless corpse was to be regarded as “unapproved by Lars Von Trier,” suggested that most audiences would only be granted a diluted softcore edition of his opus. 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. This by no means implies that audiences should refrain from seeking out Von Trier’s cut if they should so desire, but I firmly encourage any potential viewers to focus their attention on what is, in my opinion, a slightly stronger short version.