Film distributors are almost exclusively interested in making money off the works they’re releasing, as opposed to fulfilling the visions of the works’ creators. While it would be fruitless to enter a discussion about the inefficiency of that system, it must be said that the year 2014 gave us two very clear examples of how artistic statements suffer when they are butchered, censored, and/or modified to satisfy the needs of distributors.
Ned Benson’s wonderful adult drama The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which consisted of two parts, was streamlined into a single film that works on very superficial levels. The acting is good, and some scenes are quite memorable, but it amounts to little in the way of pure art. This truncated cut was the version that was first released in theaters, the result of which is that it sadly didn’t muster enough heat for people to become interested in the director’s cut that would be released a few months later.
The director’s cut of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, divided into two symmetrical parts that chronicle the same story from different angles, is a profound exploration of desire, giving lead actor Jessica Chastain the opportunity to play the same character in two very different ways. What comes across as a bipolar character in the version that was first released turns out to be a beautifully realized, not to mention majestically acted, fully-formed person in the longer version. Unfortunately, with respects to viewership, by the time the full cut came out it was too little (and too much) too late.
Lars Von Trier’s Nymph()maniac did not follow the exact same path, although similarly it was first released as two separate chapters that were followed almost half a year later by the Extended Director’s Cut. Von Trier’s first theatrical versions were received warmly by critics, who once again were titillated by the world’s most extraordinary provocateur. Von Trier has never been one to shy away from controversy and when he first announced in 2012 that he would be making two films about the life of a self-professed nymphomaniac called Joe (played by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg) from ages 0 to 50. The world payed rapt attention. He assembled one of his greatest ensembles to date and created enough buzz around the films to the point where critics and journalists were doing reenactments of the now iconic posters used by the marketing department to sell the film.
Upon Volume I‘s release, critics were pleased with the results. Uma Thurman, for her small part as the overtly dramatic wife of one of the protagonist’s lovers, gained the best notices of her career since the Kill Bill features (which, not for nothing, are also films that demand to be seen as a singular director’s cut). When Volume II arrived just a few weeks later, many regarded it with even more respect but less passion. By the time an edition called Nymphomaniac Volume I and Volume II: Extended Director’s Cut was announced, anything that had to do with the project seemed to be nothing but an afterthought. Even in the director’s home country of Denmark, the final version only managed to sell a measly 4,000 tickets.
The saddest part about this release schedule is that Nymphomaniac Volume I and Volume II: Extended Director’s Cut might very well be one of the greatest, most ambitious projects any filmmaker has undertaken this century. It’s a film of ideas so grand and sometimes ridiculous that it demanded more than to be released in a few art house markets months after people had already satiated their curiosity about the salaciousness of the project. At a very lengthy running time of five and a half hours, the director’s cut of Nymph()maniac transforms from a film, into something akin to a manifesto.
An unofficial entry in the Mad Dane’s “Depression Trilogy”, which also includes Antichrist and Melancholia (both of which also star Gainsbourg), the film examines the life of a woman through her indifference to sex and sexual behavior. What in the first theatrical version often seemed like parody in the director’s cut is clearly a highly orchestrated melodrama, in which the constant appearance of ejaculating penises and exposed vaginas seems to be not merely a morbid addition, but something akin to the musical flourishes that give Baroque music its distinct voice.
In Nymph()maniac Volume I and Volume II: Extended Director’s Cut, Von Trier puts together all of his fears, hopes, and ideas about creation together. By concealing them within the shell of something he knew would get accused of pornography, he has successfully hidden all his secrets in plain sight. Fascinated by the role of myth and storytelling in modern societies, Von Trier frames his epic tale in an Arabian Nights style, with the nymphomaniac Joe telling her tale to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who acts as both a surrogate for the audience and critics, who undoubtedly tried and continue to try to dissect and analyze the film.
By giving Joe a gender-neutral name, Von Trier allows any person to use her as a proxy. The entire film works as a projection in which we see our desires in Joe, at the same time feeling the moral and intellectual right to judge her for what she desires, like Seligman does. Von Trier’s is a failproof achievement that, like an ouroboros, gives us exactly what we put into it.
The DVD edition includes a couple of behind the scenes featurettes and trailers, none of which are of special importance. The main attraction here is the film, which unsurprisingly feels as essential and worthy of revisits as your copy of Crime and Punishment or Ulysses.