‘Nymphomaniac’ Uncut: Notes From a Five-and-a-Half-Hour Long Movie
It's the final day of Fantastic Fest and only about two dozen other people were crazy enough to show up. After a week of movies, parties and other insane events at the largest genre film festival in the United States, only a few handfuls of people were ready and prepared to tackle the nuttiest film on the fest's schedule: the 324-minute director's cut of Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomanaic.'
That's no typo: this movie is literally five-and-a-half hours long
After being released in two 120-minute "volumes" last year, this version connects both halves into one film while adding an additional 90 minutes that was cut from the original theatrical cuts. In other words, this is the cut of 'Nymphomaniac' to watch if you're a von Trier completionist. Or insane.
Von Trier is a divisive figure amongst movie fans and 'Nymphomaniac' is no different. This is the story of one woman's life as a sex addict, told in graphic, often horrifying detail and yeah, it's the kind of thing that makes it seem like von Trier is deliberately baiting his critics. Although I could've gotten some much needed sleep or squeezed in another two or three movies, I decided it was my duty as a cinephile to brave this movie ... and take notes.
1:08 - I take my seat in the back row and prepare for the long haul. I sprawl, indicating to any potential seat mates that, unless the theater fills up, the spots on either side of me belong to me and me alone. The theater won't fill up, so I feel no guilt in being so selfish.
1:11 - Since this is the Alamo Drafthouse, a server is on hand to take food and drink orders. Anthony has been tasked with serving this entire theater. As he jots down my pizza and Diet Coke order, he assures me that we're going to be good friends by the time this whole ordeal is over.
1:16 - I look around at my fellow 'Nymphomaniac' viewers. With the exception of the two women huddled together at the far end of the theater, the theater is comprised entirely of guys, almost all of them sitting alone. Whether this is because we're perverts or because we couldn't find friends stupid enough to accompany us is up for debate.
1:17 - The sole women in the theater take to Twitter to joke about how creepy it is to be the only girls at a screening of a five and a half hour movie about sex filled with literal pornography and unique acts of depravity. I apologize to them.
1:20 - A Fantastic Fest programmer steps to the front of the theater to introduce the film and calls us the most hardcore people at the festival. I pat myself on the my back. My soda arrives. Refills are free and I intend to abuse that privilege.
1:23 - The movie begins. I have not seen the theatrical cuts of either 'Nymphomaniac' volumes, so I don't know if they begin with three minutes of total darkness and creepy ambient noises, but I admire von Trier's audacity. The movie hasn't even begun yet and I feel like he's already f---ing with us.
1:26 - The movie begins proper with Stellan Skarsgard discovering Charlotte Gainsbourg's battered and bruised body left for dead in an alley. Here we go.
1:45 - My pizza arrives and I eat it slowly. I intend to pace myself over the next few hours. I will not give my body any reason to leave the theater. I will not eat too much and make myself too sick. I will not drink too much and have to make a restroom run. I lean forward on the edge of my seat and deliberately make myself uncomfortable. This way, I can resort to "comfort" much later in the film, when my mind and body actually demand it. On screen, Skarsgard and Gainsbourg are talking.
1:51 - And they're still talking. One of the most surprising things about 'Nymphomaniac' is how dialogue driven it is. The trailers may have sold live sex and in-your-face perversity, but the bulk of the film is actually two European actors sitting in a room having an intellectual conversation that leads into extended flashbacks. 30 minutes in and not a penis in sight!
2:04 - There's our first penis.
2:10 - And there's the first close-up of, uh, male ejaculate. Whether it's part of the live sex performed by body doubles or a special concoction cooked by a hard-working crew of special effects experts is unknown.
2:17 - "Is that Shia LaBeouf's real penis?" I wonder as I slurp on my Diet Coke and stuff my face with pizza. In any case, I find myself really impressed with Stacy Martin's performance as the younger version of Gainsbourg's Joe in flashbacks. She's a perfectly natural screen presence, winning every scene while the kid from 'Transformers' chokes on his accent.
2:33 - By this point in the movie, there has been plenty of sex and plenty of talk about sex, but there has been more screen time devoted to Skarsgard talking about fly fishing than anything else. That's hilarious. I imagine some poor guy renting this thing on VOD hoping for something titillating, only to get a half hour of a 63-year old Swede talking about properly baiting a lure.
2:52 - The other big surprise about 'Nymphomaniac' is how funny it is. Von Trier has always had a dark and morbid sense of humor, but the comedy here is goofier than usual for him, utilizing stock footage, onscreen graphics and fantasy sequences to deliver honest-to-god jokes. The tiny crowd is in stitches. Skarsgard is particularly funny and Gainsbourg's deadpan performance makes them the perfect Adults Only comedy team.
2:57 - More sex..
I cannot remember a time when a movie scene has punched a bigger hole in my soul. I feel physically ill. (My milkshake is delicious, by the way.)
3:01 - Uma Thurman shows up, delivers a 15-minute monologue of rage and self-loathing, drops the mic, and exits the film as quickly as she arrived. It's one of the funniest and most horrible things I've seen in a long time, like an episode of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' where the results of everyone's bad behavior permanently scar the psyches of three young children. Insert heart emoticons here.
3:21 - Of all the Hollywood actors appearing in this movie, Christian Slater is the last one I expected to have so much screen time and he's the last one I expected to give such a touching performance. Casting Slater, who tends to radiate psychopath on screen, as a gentle, nature-loving, intellectual doctor sounds like a bad joke, but he actually delivers the goods. It's my strict policy to keep actual spoilers out of these notes, but let's just say that the third hour of 'Nymphomaniac' isn't kind to Slater's character and he gives it his all.
3:33 - 'Nymphomaniac' is not only divided into two volumes -- it's also divided into eight chapters. Chapter five is my favorite so far. Exploring three of Joe's sexual partners in graphic detail, the chapter utilizes its graphic content to actually explore three unique ways in which people have, and enjoy, sex. Despite the layer of misery and depression that hangs over every moment of this movie thanks to the framing device where the main character is found (you know, half beaten to death) this sequence is all about the various joys of sex and what people get out of their specific kink. I find it genuinely moving and evidence that von Trier's interest in sex extends far beyond shock value.
3:34 - Heh. Extends.
3:40 - LaBeouf, easily the worst part of an otherwise highly entertaining movie, returns to the narrative. I resist the urge to boo the screen.
3:47 - Udo Kier sighting! Thankfully, no Udo Kier penis sighting.
3:58 - And like that, volume one is over! Despite being edited into one movie, credits still run for the first half of the movie (contractual reasons?), providing the audience an impromptu intermission. I have never seen anyone move as fast as these people did on their way to the restrooms.
3:59 - I stand up. I stretch. I realize that I still have three hours left in this theater ... and I'm okay with it! Despite its length, 'Nymphomaniac' uncut is flying by. These first two and a half hours didn't feel like two and a half hours at all.
4:01 - Others obviously disagree. At least four people do not return to the theater as "Volume 2" gets under way.
4:05 - The tone of the film's second half is different from the moment the story resumes. The first volume concluded with a dark revelation and volume two runs with it. With each passing minute, the comedy of the first half leaks out of the story. The sudden change in tone feels like a warning: things are about to start getting rough.
4:25 - Gainsbourg has officially taken over the film, now playing herself in the flashbacks ... and she's already in emotional distress and enduring all kinds of intense physical suffering. Yep, that's the Lars von Trier I know! Way to hide behind the cloak of droll comedy for the first 150 minutes!
4:43 - As Jamie Bell does terrifying things to Gainsbourg's body, I find myself admiring how brave and open virtually every performance in the movie really is. Someone in Bell's life probably told him that playing a vicious sadomasochist in a film by one of the world's most controversial filmmakers would be a mistake, but here he is!
4:57 - My notes begin to trail off. Volume two isn't a romp, like the first half. All of the sex has become decidedly unsexy. I realize this was by design -- von Trier took us up as high as we could go before he let everyone plummet back to Earth. I watch great chunks of volume two through my fingers, wincing.
4:59 - I order a milkshake.
5:28 - A character gives herself an abortion. I've seen a lot of disturbing things in a lot of disturbing movies, but this is something else altogether. Zero punches are pulled. I feel bad for the make-up artists tasked with making this scene a reality.
5:30 - Yep, still aborting.
5:33 - And it's over. I cannot remember a time when a movie scene has punched a bigger hole in my soul. I feel physically ill. My milkshake is delicious, by the way.
6:02 - 'Nymphomaniac' takes a truly bizarre left turn in its final chapter and my hand, too tired from so many hours of note-taking and shake-gulping, fails to capture every necessary detail. I put my notebook away and watch the rest of the damn movie.
6:41 - I really, really, really don't know how I feel about the final scene of the movie. Like, reeeaaally.
6:42 - End credits. Someone towards the front of the theater yells "We did it!" Everyone applauds.
6:43 - The remaining audience shuffles toward the exit, looking like the walking dead.
6:45 - Outside, in the sweet, merciful sunlight, I contemplate the film I just watched. It's the funniest movie I've seen from von Trier, but it's also one of the most disturbing, especially when he pulls the rug out from under you in the second half. Still, having seen this version, I cannot imagine ever watching the film as two separate volumes. I don't know what 90 minutes were cut for the two-part release, but just about every scene in this version feels essential, even when the story goes a bit off the rails in the final hour. It's a challenging watch, but it's certainly not a difficult watch. Every cinephile owes it to themselves to give this absurd thing a shot, especially if they can see it in a theater. There's nothing else quite like it.
'Nymphomaniac' uncut is now available on VOD and in select theaters.