Nymphomaniac: Director’s Cut Review

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård in Nymphomaniac

Lars von Trier doesn’t know anything about sex, and neither does anyone in Nymphomaniac. Despite it being the film’s central preoccupation, two volumes and four hours weren’t enough for the Danish director to arrive at any sort of concrete thesis on human sexuality. He also never came close to developing a clear statement on self-loathing, deviance, relationships, and every other topic under the sun that the epic, psycho-erotic character study touched upon. Nymphomaniac and its director were locked in nattering, schizophrenic conversation with themselves, and with the release of the Director’s Cut, the only real question worth answering is how much longer one can indulge von Trier’s shaggy dog sexcapade.

Turns out: quite a while. Clocking in at a whopping five and half hours, the Director’s Cut of Nymphomaniac, released on VOD and in select theatres today, is more of the same, and then some: more digressive, more explicit, more rambling, more everything. From title to runtime, von Trier has put his estimable skill toward making one of the longest and densest recent examples of cinema as provocation. Whether it’s a provocation worth engaging with is entirely up to the viewer.

The new version contains everything from the original releases, including the same self-reflexive story-within-a-story structure. Our heroine is still Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, and self-described awful human being, who spends the film recounting the life that led her to the doorstep of a sympathetic stranger (Stellan Skarsgård). The man’s capacity for rationalization and empathy creates something of a challenge for Joe, whose own well of self-loathing seems limitless. The two-hander top layer of Nymphomaniac mirrors the relationship between the viewer and the director. There’s a gamely playfulness to each new taboo introduced and explored, as Nymphomaniac tests your willingness to interpret it as more, or less than a near-6 hour raspberry being blown in your face.

In other words, if you liked Nymphomaniac before, good news: the Director’s Cut is more Nymphomaniac. Unlike an extended version that makes order out of nonsense, like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, or one that alters your interpretation of the material, like Scott’s preferred cut of Blade Runner, Nymphomaniac is not a drastically different film when given another four reels of material. To borrow from its own metaphor, the polyphony that forms out of Nymphomaniac’s episodic look at one woman’s sexual history takes on a richer texture with each anecdote thrown into the mix. The result is a more overwhelming and exhausting experience, but a complete one.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac

The first volume remains the stronger installment, following the younger Joe (Stacy Martin) from childhood through to early adulthood. Featuring many of the funniest asides and analogies for Joe’s sordid affairs, each new chapter in the story is accompanied by a little formal trickery, whether it’s a switch to black and white, or a change in aspect ratio meant to mimic home videos. Building on what is the looser half of the saga, additions to Volume I are often just extensions of previous material, though one small, early insert foreshadows the greater emphasis on religion and children that the Director’s Cut maintains.

This bears out in Volume II, which features the most significant addition to the story. Those thinking they’re inured to every graphic facet of human sexuality von Trier wanted to rub their face in the first time are in for a surprise, as the most shocking scene of the Nymphomaniac story didn’t make it into the original cut. With nearly an hour of added content, Volume II is the most dramatically changed of the two. As with Volume I, the additions are largely superfluous on their own (was anyone dying to find out the origins of, say, a used riding crop?), but the whole of the picture is still the same as ever, just bigger.

Of course, this means that Nymphomaniac is often only as captivating as each individual entry in the tale, just like before. It also means that the misanthropic middle finger of an ending is even more frustrating, despite the final moment being a tad more poetic in light of an earlier added scene. The longer you spend in Nymphomaniac’s head, the easier it is to see how its success depends on strong musical selection and performance, and how its frustrations stem from von Trier refusing to ever say “no.”

But whether you take it as an X-rated koan, or simply an exploration of excess through excess, the Director’s Cut represents Nymphomaniac in its ultimate form. With one key exception, what’s been added is just more naughty bits and small missing pieces, but Nymphomaniac was always an experiment in combining bits and pieces to test whether the onus of meaning in storytelling falls on the giver or receiver. For those who aren’t already spent by von Trier’s impish approach to icky material, the full experience of Nymphomaniac’s Director’s Cut is one worth seeing through to completion.

Nymphomaniac: Director's Cut Review

More sex, more taboos, more digressions: it's more everything in the Director's Cut of Nymphomaniac.