My heart sank a little upon seeing the opening disclaimer to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume 1, which declared the film to be an “abridged and censored” version of the movie made with the director’s permission, but without his involvement otherwise.
While it’s become commonplace among blockbusters to adapt single stories into multiple films – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, and The Hobbit trilogy indicate the start of a worrying trend – I believe this is the first case of a film being cut in two after production, without the director’s involvement (Kill Bill was split into two films during production, but director Quentin Tarantino was fully involved in the process; in some foreign territories, the double-feature Grindhouse was released as two separate movies, but those were two complete films in their own right, and their directors prepared extended versions for release).
But censored and abridged, to boot? Purportedly, Lars von Trier’s original cut of Nymphomaniac ran 5½ hours long; for general release in Denmark and other European countries beginning on Christmas Day, 2013, the film was released (nearly simultaneously) in two separate volumes with a combined running time of about 4½ hours (and minus end credits for both of those features, they clock in at a few minutes shorter).
A “director’s cut” of Nymphomaniac: Part 1 will premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February; presumably, a director’s cut of the whole damn thing will premiere during Cannes before making its way to home video later this year. In the meantime, audiences are welcome to watch this “censored and abridged,” soon-to-be obsolete version of the film. Half of it at a time.
It’s a little infuriating, because in some form, von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a significant and important piece of work: with its frank discussions and depictions of sex, but more importantly, sexuality, this is destined to become one of the most widely-seen films that tackles the subject matter in an adult and literate manner.
That’s in large part due to the high-profile director and cast, but also the subtly prurient promotional material for the film – that brilliant parentheses poster, a series of suggestive posters each featuring a single member of the cast, and brief snippets from each of the film’s eight segments serving as “appetizers“. While suitably explicit, the final film (at least, this version) is nowhere near as prurient as the promo materials might lead you to believe.
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 begins with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) being discovered battered and semi-conscious in an alleyway by a kind stranger named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Joe insists that Seligman doesn’t phone the police or an ambulance; instead, the Good Samaritan takes her to his home to heal, where she tells him her life story – the sex-infused events that lead her to her current situation.
With Gainsbourg confined to a single room throughout the film, it’s Stacy Martin – as the young Joe – who is the real star of Volume 1. Martin – in her debut feature film – is magnetic as the burgeoning nymphomaniac who takes pride in her sexuality; the incredibly blunt train ride sequence, her introduction to this lifestyle, might be the best scene in either film.
Supporting Martin are Christian Slater and Connie Nielson as Joe’s parents: Slater is excellent, with a stark hospital sequence that becomes difficult to watch, though Nielson is under-utilized; you’d think there’d be more analysis of the mother-daughter relationship. Shia LaBeouf is Jerôme, the man who takes Joe’s virginity and will later feature more significantly in her life; Sophie Kennedy Clark is the girl that leads young Joe down the path of no return.
Uma Thurman is a standout during a single sequence as “Mrs. H,” the wife of one of Joe’s many lovers, who storms Joe’s apartment with three kids in tow when her husband decides to leave her for Joe. As Joe, Mr. H, and another of Joe’s lovers sit uncomfortably, Mrs. H releases a whirlwind diatribe that exemplifies the “real-world” implications of this lifestyle – the emotional effects that are a completely foreign element to Joe.
While Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 is clearly an incomplete piece of work, it features a burning energy and a tangible arc within these first five chapters that leads to a conclusion that is almost hopeful. During the musically-enhanced final sequence, as Joe’s story reaches a poignant (if that’s possible) realization, we unwittingly begin to feel for her.