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Selling Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac': How To Create a Sexy, Controversial Hit

Indiewire By Boyd van Hoeij | Indiewire December 12, 2013 at 1:7PM

Lars von Trier's scandalous epic screened for press last week in Denmark. Will the rest of the world be able to handle it?
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"Nymphomaniac"

Everyone knows that sex sells. Lars von Trier's latest film, "Nymphomaniac," has a lot of it. So one might assume its box office potential is pretty big.

But it might not be that cut and dried. With von Trier, it never is.

For starters, there’s sex on film and then there’s explicit sex on film — more often called porn. Except this is auteur porn and though there’s a lot of sex, there’s even more time dedicated to character, story and countless intellectual digressions. Not a lot of curious horndogs looking to get off on their favorite stars having explicit sex (via body doubles) are likely to sit through an arthouse film that’s at least double a regular feature’s length. Or are they?

READ MORE: Sophie Kennedy Clark on Giving Her Best O-Face for Her 'Nymphomaniac' Character Poster

Uma Thurman in 'Nymphomaniac'

"Nymphomaniac," an epic and explicit exploration of a woman’s life and lovers over five decades, is indeed really long -- so long, in fact, that it's been divided into two parts, made up of a total of eight chapters, with immediate stiffy-inducing titles such as "The Eastern and the Western Church." Only von Trier could try to make such disparate elements come together meaningfully in a single film.

The film screened for the press for the first time last week in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen. Present for the press junket were the trio of main actors, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard and newcomer Stacy Martin, who plays Gainsbourg’s character as a girl. Conspicuously absent was one man: von Trier himself.

Certainly one of the year's most eagerly awaited arthouse titles, "Nymphomaniac" is also the first film for which the Danish provocateur and auteur -- post-Nazi incident in Cannes -- has decided to do no press at all. Though this meant that the Copenhagen event was essentially a Lars von Trier junket without Lars von Trier, it also meant that his two-part opus could speak even more loudly for itself.

READ MORE: Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac' Divided In Two, Sets U.S. Theatrical And VOD Release Dates

Speaking to the press at the Danish Film Institute, "Nympomaniac" marketing director Philip Einstein Lipski said that Von Trier's silence was actually "very liberating" for the marketing people. It will no doubt also help fuel even more discussions after audiences have started to see the film in theaters and on VOD.

The superb and eye-catching character poster campaign, with all the actors doing their "O" faces, was Lipski's idea (with his wife's collaboration). Von Trier also participated in the marketing meetings and, always the provocateur, came up with elements including the suggestively bracketed spelling of “Nymph( )maniac,” and the complimentary tagline "Forget About Love."

Von Trier's five-hour version reportedly contains an abortion scene absent from the shorter cut.

The idea that had to be conveyed to audiences, according to Lipski, was that "anyone who has ever had sex could be interested in this movie."

"Nymphomaniac" will be released in several European countries, including Denmark, on Christmas Day. While this might seem a stroke of counterprogramming genius, producer Louise Vesth offered an alternative rationale: that the film needs a period in which people have enough free time to actually go and see both two-hour parts. That said, the extremely explicit content hardly makes it a film for the whole family, though it could work as counter-programming for arthouse-savvy patrons.

READ MORE: It's Here! Watch the First Full Trailer for Lars von Trier's Hotly Anticipated 'Nymphomaniac'

International distributors, however, are free to choose how the film will be released in their territories, and in many countries the two parts will be released separately -- including in the U.S., where part one will come out in March and part two will follow in April (Magnolia will make the film available on VOD a few weeks before the theatrical release dates).

Reviews are officially embargoed until closer to the release, but the press was allowed to talk about the junket and the interviews beforehand. The version shown last week was the official four-hour version, which consists of two volumes: part one, which runs 110 minutes, and part two, which clocks in at 130 minutes. According to Vesth, this is the only version ready at the moment. However, von Trier's five-hour version, reportedly 90 minutes longer, was the version screened for the actors before the junket. It reportedly contains an abortion scene absent from the shorter cut, as well as more material from the AA-type group meetings the protagonist, Joe, attends so she can talk about her sex addiction. 

Shia Labeouf and Stacy Martin in "Nymphomaniac."

The longer version might premiere at a major European festival like Cannes or Berlin, as suggested by Vesth's mention of “possibly the 'usual' place" for the premiere of the longer version and the rather muddy timeline for its completion. Interestingly, most of the world, including the U.S., will have seen the short version by then. Will paying audiences have any interest a very similar film with more explicit sex, done by porn actors with their faces replaced by those of the actors in post-production?

Explicit arthouse sex, especially when it involves a woman or women and is directed by a man, is of course always a magnet for debate; only several months ago, "Blue Is the Warmest Color," generated a long but fascinating debate about the male gaze and female sexuality. 

Some of that debate is likely to continue when "Nymphomaniac" screens more widely. Personally, this writer is not a fan of the theory that von Trier is a misogynist, and while it might be clear that he views women as otherworldly creatures, that doesn't mean his female characters are any less fascinating or complex for it; indeed, his two most recent films both garnered Cannes Best Actress awards (for Gainsbourg, in "Antichrist," and Kirstin Dunst, in "Melancholia," where she played Gainsbourg’s sister). Additionally, Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall and Bryce Dallas Howard have all signed up to work with him.

Gainsbourg here returns to complete her von Trier hat trick in what’s possibly her most demanding role to date for the most demanding director she’s ever worked with. Interestingly, during her interviews she expressed uncertainty over whether she truly belongs in the Trier family yet or whether she even knows the guy that well. 

"I'd like to think I’m part of his family," said said. "What's interesting with Lars is that he pushes you to do things you’re afraid to do."

What makes Lars such an fascinating but also hard-to-read director, according to his star, is "his unpredictability," though he’s someone who "gives no directions at first, he has to see how the scene plays and then he’ll come in and make adjustments."

Skarsgard, who alternates work with arthouse giants such as von Trier -- this is their sixth collaboration -- with appearances in Hollywood fare such as Disney's  "Pirates of the Caribbean" films and Marvel features such as "The Avengers" and the recent "Thor" sequel, suggested that U.S. audiences might frown slightly upon some of his European work, though this doesn't bother him in the least. 

"For my Disney movies there's always a morality clause in my contracts," he said, "though I refuse to sign that -- it is an infringement on my freedom of expression." 

Certainly, nobody’s going to advise him to stop working with envelope-pushing people like von Trier. One can imagine the director laughing when he first conceived of casting Skarsgard, someone who's never had any problem with nudity in film and who's the father of eight children (including actors Alexander, Bill and Gustaf Skarsgard) as an asexual man in "Nymphomaniac."

The story of Joe’s life is told by the nymphomaniac Joe herself to Skarsgard’s bookish, Jewish — expect some meta-commentary on the Nazi situation — intellectual Seligman, with flashbacks then filling in the rest. 

Of course, Joe and Seligman are total opposites, though they might at the same time be two sides of the same coin: Gainsbourg, when explaining her character, insightfully suggested as much. "I find it hard to even think of Joe as a woman, because to me, the character is really Lars," she said. "Or at least a part of Lars." So perhaps this four-hour plus, explicit film is really one of arthouse’s most idiosyncratic directors' most autobiographical projects. But it's hard to imagine any distributor trying to market that angle.


This article is related to: News, Nymphomaniac: Volume I, Lars von Trier, Danish, Zentropa, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Sexuality, Magnolia Pictures